Revealed: Secret call that allowed Ruby Princess to dock
Explosive leaked phone conversations have revealed the Port Authority of NSW overturned its own decision not to allow the Ruby Princess to dock in Sydney after a midnight phone call from a senior Carnival Australia official.
The sensational twist is revealed in frantic phone conversations between frontline emergency services and Port Authority NSW logs in the final hours before the cruise ship was eventually told it could release its 2700 passengers on March 19.
The conversations - relayed to The Sunday Telegraph - revealed Port Authority officials had initially denied the ship permission to dock following a call from a senior ambulance officer that some passengers on board were displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
Prior to its entry into Sydney Harbour, an agent from the cruise ship had contacted Ambulance NSW to book a vehicle for two of its passengers.
Two telephone conversions between ambulance officers and Carnival Australia reveal the cruise line suspected some passengers may have coronavirus.
When Carnival Australia was booking ambulances on March 18, it was asked if the passenger could have COVID-19.
In the first call, a representative for the cruise ship revealed to the ambulance officer that a doctor had told her that the patient requiring an ambulance "had been tested for corona … The doctor has told me they have been tested for corona so precautions need to be taken, so possibly," the Carnival Australia representative is alleged to have stated.
The exchange occurred shortly before 9pm. In discussion about a second passenger with an upper respiratory tract infection and lower back pain requiring an ambulance, the question was asked again if the passenger could have coronavirus
"And, the same as before, has she been tested for coronavirus?" the ambulance officer is alleged to have asked.
The Carnival Australia representative allegedly declared the passenger had been swabbed for the virus.
"Yeah, she has been swabbed for coronavirus," the representative allegedly said.
"Influenza test negative."
It is understood ambulance officials' concerns were a key reason why the Port Authority chose to deny the Ruby Princess permission to dock.
On March 18 at 11.30pm, the authority told the ship of its decision to refuse access as it sought further information about the sick passengers.
However, an hour later, it reversed its decision.
The Port Authority is responsible for allowing ships to dock but NSW Health is tasked with assessing any public health risk in disembarkation.
Port Authority logs are understood to show the reversal followed a phone conversation between a senior Carnival Australia ports official and the Port Authority shortly after midnight.
The authority was told that NSW Ambulance had received incorrect information and that they had not been called "for COVID symptoms".
"The ambulances for Ruby Princess have not been called for COVID symptoms," the Port Authority logs said.
Instead, the ambulances were needed for three passengers with heart problems, a septic ear infection and a leg problem.
At 12.50am on March 19, Port Authority officials instruct the Ruby Princess of its decision that it would now be able to enter.
Despite the Port Authority logs noting the ship would be docking in Sydney at 6am, the Ruby Princess slipped in to Circular Quay at 2.30am.
Separate midnight phone conversations between frontline emergency services workers and relayed to The Sunday Telegraph reveal the confusion over whether the ship was carrying coronavirus.
A call between two officers discusses how the Sydney Harbour Master had "called Carnival Australia" and how the ship had "book two ambulance for non-COVID related" passengers. One of the officers declares that it was the view of Ambulance NSW that the booking was for "COVID-related". The officer notes the protocols in place for "anyone who has any respiratory issues or breathing problems".
"We ask them all the questions about corona," the officer declares.
"And they're saying that it's not." In reply, the second officer declares: "(Carnival Australia) says that it's not".
"But we still can't raise the Ruby Princess yet".
The first officer also discusses how the ship suspected five passengers of having coronavirus as it made its way to NSW, but how they'd since "all been tested and they've come back negative".
The second officer said it was their understanding that the two patients that the ambulance had been called for had been tested, "but the results haven't come back".
"We're going to head down at 2.30am anyway to pick up these people and take them to RPA and they will do some more testing," the officer said.
The first officer said that this would not be possible as the Port Authority had cancelled the booking amid concerns some passengers were suspected of having COVID-19
The officer later corrected the comment, noting how Port Authority had since spoken "to (the executive)" who had informed the authority that the ambulance booking was "not corona-related".
"They have now accepted the booking again."
The conversations occurred hours after Ruby Princess had emailed a report to the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment saying 110 of the 2647 passengers aboard were sick with 17 recording temperatures of over 38C.
The report, dated March 18 and sent at 8.54 revealed another six passengers were complaining of "muscle aches, diarrhoea, severe headaches or vomiting (but not vomiting caused by inebriation or motion sickness) and further six having suffered from gastrointestinal illness in the past 21 days.
The ship answered "no" to a question asking if any person on the vessel had been in contact "with a proven case of novel coronavirus infection in the last 14 days".
The decision to allow the Ruby Princess to disembark without waiting for test results has rocked the State government, with Health Minister Brad Hazzard and NSW Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant under fire.
There have been 342 confirmed cases of Ruby Princess passengers with COVID-19 and seven deaths.
About 10 per cent of the 5331 cases nationally have been linked to the ship.
Mr Hazzard yesterday defended the State government's handling of the debacle, saying he was standing behind his staff.
Carnival Australia denied any wrongdoing, maintaining the Ruby Princess had followed all of the required procedure that were in place before a ship was permitted to dock
"The calls to the NSW Ambulance Service are entirely consistent with comments made by NSW Health at (Saturday's) media conference," a Carnival Australia spokesman told The Sunday Telegraph.
"This appears to be no more than a port agent carrying out an administrative task on behalf of the ship to call two ambulances based on brief details provided from on board.
"It would not have been possible for the agent to confirm COVID-19 because testing for it was not done on cruise ships. Then standard practice involved swabs being taken which were then handed to the public health authority for testing," he said.
"Given heightened awareness of coronavirus, any case involving respiratory symptoms would have been treated conservatively and with great caution, as these cases were. In relation to the NSW Port Authority, no one would have been in a position to confirm COVID-19 because of the testing regime referred to earlier. On this basis nothing should be read into these circumstances."
Originally published as Revealed: Secret midnight call that allowed Ruby Princess to dock