Two deaths and 215 cases: Inside the cruise ship that spread COVID-19 across Australia.


After an 11-day voyage, the Ruby Princess cruise arrived back in Sydney just before dawn on March 19, 2020, and offloaded its 2,700 passengers onto the Circular Quay forecourt.

Some of them were visibly sick – coughing and spluttering as they walked onto land.

And yet, amid a coronavirus crisis that was already enveloping Australia by this point, everyone on the ship was free to leave.

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They hopped on planes, trains and buses as they split up and headed back to their respective homes (some of which were overseas).

Now 215 people from that cruise have tested positive to COVID-19, and two passengers have died.

State and federal governments are blaming each other, and passengers have expressed their anger at not being put through more rigorous checks.

So how did this happen?

The Ruby Princess’s route to New Zealand was, according to NSW Health, “low risk”.

It departed Sydney on March 8, and by March 14 when it docked in Wellington, it had a number of passengers reporting flu-like symptoms, reports The Age.


The ship became one of four given an exemption to land back in Sydney after the government introduced a country-wide 30-day ban on foreign cruises.

The cruise liner had to cut its trip short to get back into Australian waters in time.

Cruise Ships Continue To Arrive In Sydney Despite Coronavirus Fears
Passengers were free to disembark the ship with little to no checks, which led to the virus spreading across Australia. Image: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty.

All those aboard the ship were asked to self-isolate for 14 days after hopping off, but many arrivals reported getting nothing more than an information sheet about coronavirus when they arrived back on land.


The next day, four positive cases were confirmed from the ship.

As of the weekend, that number had risen to 215.

The federal government says it was "up to the states to manage the arrival of cruise ships" with the Australian Border Force blaming New South Wales Health for giving the Ruby Princess the green light.

However, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said: "with the benefit of hindsight, passengers should not have been let off the ship. [But] Personally, I think the Federal guidance is very lacking in appropriate directions".


The state's chief medical officer, Kerry Chant, said NSW Health acted swiftly once it became known the virus was on board, but until that point there was nothing to indicate the ship was at risk.

"Cruise ships always had some level of respiratory illness," she said in a press conference.


How are the passengers going?

As the governments squabble over whose fault the disembarkment processes are, passengers aren't being shy about chatting to the media.

Victorian Grant Redman told Shepparton News, he drove across two states after disembarking the ship, stopping for fuel along the way before he reached his home and immediately self-isolated.

"There had been no communication and no checks from the cruise ship to date," he said over the weekend.

"We thought when we disembarked, surely there'd be temperature guns and screenings for all of us just in case — but there was nothing," he added.

Other passengers recalled to Daily Mail Australia coming into contact with sick people on the boat and said there were no warnings.

"We would have isolated ourselves in the cabin if we'd known. We're not spring chickens - we're high risk," said Rona Doubrin. "People were going down to the pool, lying in the sun, dancing, seeing shows."

Elisa McCafferty told BBC, they weren't aware of any danger until they picked up their bags at Heathrow Airport, two international flights later.

"What if we had infected someone?" she asked.


Two Ruby passengers have died - a 77-year-old woman in New South Wales, a 75-year-old woman in Queensland - and there are now positive coronavirus cases in Utah America, NSW, QLD, NT, SA, WA, ACT and Tasmania as a result of the ship.

The cruise was responsible for bringing in the very first case of the virus into towns such as Tamworth, reported the Northern Daily Leader.

In the NSW Hunter region they noticed a surge of cases as a result of the cruise.

What about the crew?

The Ruby Princess is still floating off the coast of Sydney with more than 1100 crew quarantined on board.

Over the weekend, three were brought back to land and taken to hospital with serious COVID-19 symptoms.

They were evacuated with the help of police.


A spokesman for the Carnival Cruise company said the three crew members were suffering acute respiratory symptoms, and thanked authorities for transferring the passengers, who are not Australian nationals, "on humanitarian grounds".

What now?

The Ruby cruise incident is a good example of what can happen when this virus is left unchecked. Further reinforcing the government's strict social distancing restrictions.

For example, according to South Australia, 68 of its 299 coronavirus cases can be linked back to the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

The ABC reports as of Friday there were still 19 people from the ship who are yet to be contacted by NSW Health, who could very well still be out in the community potentially spreading the virus.

In the wake of the Ruby disaster, NSW has banned all cruise ship passengers from disembarking until new protocols are in place.

Feature image: Getty.

- With AAP

To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.