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A crew party onboard after docking: What we've learnt from the Ruby Princess inquiry.

On March 19, a week before the World Health Organisation declared a global health pandemic, the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney and 2,700 passengers disembarked and went their separate ways.

Ever since, the ill-fated ship has dominated Australia’s coronavirus news coverage for the bungled handling and mistakes that have led to the deaths of 21 passengers, and the infection of more than 600 people.

Even though the country’s media has been following every step of the cruise liner disaster, new information continues to trickle out as a Special Commission of Inquiry is held into the Ruby Princess debacle in NSW.

WATCH: A party was held on deck on March 19, after passengers disembarked. 

Video via ABC

On ABC’s 7.30 last night, it was revealed that Ruby Princess crew held a party onboard after waving off the final passengers.

The “sail away” party would normally be reserved for passengers, but with the ship free of guests, the crew were treated to some fun and entertainment instead.

“A party without passengers never happens so it was amazing,” the ship’s fitness instructor Byron Sodani told 7.30.

Crew held a party onboard after everyone disembarked on March 19. Image: ABC.
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"We were aware of the social distancing but in our minds, we were thinking the ship is healthy, nobody's got the coronavirus, so we don't need to worry," another crew member told 7.30. 

As the ship's passengers had been allowed to disembark, the crew assumed everything was fine onboard.

The following day NSW Health confirmed three passengers and one crew member had tested positive to COVID-19.

The NSW inquiry into the Ruby Princess cruise ship is trying to work out exactly what went wrong, as both the state and federal governments continue to dodge blame. Headed by Sydney silk Bret Walker — who successfully appealed against George Pell's conviction in the High Court - the inquiry findings will be delivered by August 14.

On Tuesday, an NSW Health official was reduced to tears after it was suggested there had been “reprehensible shortcomings” by the department when passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney.

Senior epidemiologist Kelly-Anne Ressler, the coordinator of the department’s cruise ship health program, told the commission she had helped draft the COVID-19 protocol document her department released on February 19.

While the document advised that all passengers visit the ship’s medical centre if they had respiratory symptoms and a fever, with isolation to follow, Ressler told the inquiry "while a ship was at sea she had no jurisdiction to control what actions were taken".

"All I can say is that I'm very sorry it turned out the way it did, it was not our intention," she continued as she fought back tears.

"Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard on this. We did what we could and if we could do it again it would be very different."

The commission was told after the ship arrived into Sydney, the swabs from sick passengers were "put into the queue as per normal" for COVID-19 testing rather than being expedited.

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RUBY CRUISE
21 people from the Ruby Princess cruise have now died from coronavirus. Image: Getty.

"My understanding is the technician didn't realise they were cruise ship samples... and they were not tested as a priority," Ressler said.

Counsel assisting Richard Beasley SC said there were only 25 COVID-19 test kits available on the cruise ship with only 13 people swabbed by the time the liner docked.

However, at least 36 people were listed as having high fever, muscle aches and persistent coughing. Despite this, the ship stated in its biosecurity declarations that "no one on board had been exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus".

The ship's doctor, Dr Ilse Von Watzdorf, who was the first witness called at the inquiry, said these were all “non-specific” signs of COVID-19, which was why she answered “no” on the Maritime Arrivals Reporting System declaration. However, she admitted she was surprised the ship was allowed to dock.

SHIP-DOC
The ship's doctor was the first witness called to give evidence at the ongoing inquiry. Image: ABC
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The inquiry earlier heard the ship was initially refused permission to dock by the NSW Port Authority, and an official from the Australian Border Force discussed “turning the ship around and sending it back to sea” before both decisions were overturned.

The ship had been graded “low risk” by an expert panel of NSW Health officials in the days leading up to its arrival, and when it did arrive, passengers were given little to no screening before being allowed to leave the terminal. The inquiry has since learned that NSW Health made that decision on records that were at least 18 hours old.

Charles Verwall, the hotel manager on board the cruise, told the inquiry he was "surprised" guests who had been tested for COVID-19 were allowed to leave before the test results had come back.

He said social distancing was implemented from the start of the cruise on March 8 as well as increased cleaning protocols and changes to the kitchen service. But no changes were made to entertainment areas, including nightclubs and shows.

He added no NSW Health personnel boarded the ship on arrival in Sydney on March 19 in contrast to their meticulous inspections on March 8.

A separate Senate inquiry into the Ruby Princess also began in Canberra this week and a criminal investigation, which is following up 220 leads, has been underway since early April. It will deliver its findings in September.

 - With AAP.

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Feature image: 7News/Getty. 

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