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Questions remain about the Ruby Princess as the federal Agriculture Department secretary contradicts the Commonwealth government’s own submission about who gave permission for passengers to leave the cruise ship. By Karen Middleton.

Who allowed Ruby Princess passengers to disembark?

The federal Agriculture Department has been unable to confirm whether anyone actively gave advance legal permission for passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship to disembark, or if it was simply deemed granted because nobody stopped them.

Appearing before a parliamentary inquiry this week, department secretary Andrew Metcalfe contradicted the government’s own evidence to the Ruby Princess inquiry on how and when permission was granted.

Passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney on the morning of March 19 before sick passengers’ Covid-19 test results had been returned, which led to the ship becoming one of Australia’s biggest sources of coronavirus infection and at least 28 deaths.

Metcalfe insisted one of his biosecurity officers gave “oral” permission on board the ship about 6.30am that day.

But in a recent written submission to the New South Wales special commission of inquiry, the federal government said no oral permission was granted and that approval was only deemed given when documents were lodged electronically, more than an hour later.

The Ruby Princess inquiry’s commissioner, Bret Walker, SC, made the same conclusion.

As the federal government refused to allow its officials to give evidence to the special commission in person, Walker wasn’t able to question Metcalfe or any other federal officials directly.

Walker handed his report to the NSW government on Friday last week, having tried unsuccessfully to summons a biosecurity officer from Metcalfe’s department, despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison having promised full co-operation.

The government instead provided written submissions.

It said permission to disembark, known as pratique, was first given at 7.39am on March 19, when a biosecurity officer lodged electronic documentation from the dock, having struggled with the internet connection on board.

The submission said this was when approval was conveyed to the ship because “pratique does not appear to have been granted orally by a biosecurity officer prior to this time”.

But this week, four days after Walker’s report was published, Andrew Metcalfe contradicted that statement.

He told the senate’s Covid-19 inquiry that oral permission was given about the time disembarkation began at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal. But he couldn’t prove it.

“Clearly permission was granted around 6.30, orally, but it was only recorded [later],” Metcalfe said.

When shadow Home Affairs minister Kristina Keneally queried this, Metcalfe quoted a second Commonwealth submission: “Although pratique appears not to have been formally granted before disembarkation, clearly passengers were permitted to disembark in advance of that occurring and no biosecurity officers sought to prevent passengers from disembarking.”

The submission referred to this as a “practical granting of pratique”.

Keneally noted that a ship’s officer had asked an Australian Border Force official conducting customs and immigration checks if the ship was clear to begin offloading passengers.

The ABF officer said “yes”.

The officer had no authority to give approval.

Agriculture’s biosecurity officers were legally responsible for granting pratique based on advice from the ABF and NSW Health, which had delegated responsibility for human health aspects of the approval.

“Is it possible that vessel operator thought that the ABF had that authority?” Keneally asked Metcalfe on Tuesday.

“Is it possible that this whole thing is a giant misunderstanding over who has what responsibility?”

Metcalfe repeated that the practical pratique was granted.

“And one way that it was granted was by my officers not seeking to prevent the departure,” he said.

On Tuesday, Metcalfe had to correct evidence he gave in May, after the committee wrote to him pointing out inconsistencies with the government’s subsequent submissions to Walker’s commission. Giving misleading testimony can be considered a contempt of parliament, which is an offence.

In his report, Bret Walker spared the ABF criticism but lambasted NSW Health and, to a lesser extent, the federal Agriculture Department.

Walker found poor communication between federal and state agencies contributed to the incident.

He found the system was set up to effectively assume pratique would be granted unless something justified withholding it.

He says this should be reversed.

While each agency had a role, no one was responsible for checking the assumptions at each stage before a final decision was made.

Walker labelled a NSW Health expert medical panel’s rating of the ship as low risk as “inexplicable” and “a serious mistake”.

He found that officials failed to grasp that allowing any infected person into the community unawares could be catastrophic.

The low-risk rating relied on the percentage of passengers with respiratory symptoms being below an arbitrary level. It was not considered that if even one person had Covid-19, the ship was high risk because the virus was likely to have already spread.

The designation influenced all other agencies to assume it was not a problem.

Ill passengers’ swabs were not tested urgently on arrival and results were not known when passengers left.

Speaking to the senate committee, Andrew Metcalfe revealed that while his officials used a checklist to grill passengers at airports and crew arriving on cargo ships, this protocol was routinely not followed for cruise ships in Sydney – with it deemed too time-consuming to interview every sick passenger.

Instead, the department’s biosecurity officers relied on ships’ doctors to undertake the “traveller-with-illness check”.

On the Ruby Princess though, the doctor was overwhelmed by sick passengers, and this illness check was not done.

This week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian apologised for NSW Health’s errors.

The senate committee members asked Metcalfe to find out exactly which of his officers gave the word to let passengers off the ship.

He said he’ll get back to them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2020 as "Arrival tactics".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.