A phone conversation between an Australian Border Force official and a Sydney harbourmaster could have led to the troubled Ruby Princess getting permission to dock in Sydney despite 140 people in isolation on board.
The phone call, revealed by the Sydney Morning Herald, is expected to be part of criminal investigations into the fiasco surrounding the cruise ship, which has been linked to about 650 Australian cases and 15 deaths.
NSW detectives raided the ship at Port Kembla overnight to seize evidence – including the vessel's critical "black box" – and question crew about how 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark.
The Ruby Princess visited New Zealand before heading to Sydney, and it has been linked to a cluster of cases in Hawke's Bay, including several at a rest home.
That fateful call
According to the Sydney Morning Herald report, hours before the ship docked at Sydney on March 19, an Australian Border Force (ABF) official spoke to a Port Authority of NSW harbourmaster on the phone about where the ship should dock, given concerns over the number of people on board with health concerns.
During the discussion, the harbourmaster suggested the ship avoid Sydney Harbour and dock at Bradley's Head, on Sydney's North Shore, instead.
Sources told the Herald the ABF officer said they needed to check with a supervisor. In another phone call 15 minutes later, the officer said the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock. It arrived at Sydney Harbour hours later.
The Australian Border Force confirmed the conversation took place in a statement to news.com.au.
"The ABF can confirm that the NSW Port Authority contacted the ABF in the early hours of the 19th of March, expressing concern in relation to the health of passengers on board the Ruby Princess," the statement said.
"The ABF officer made internal enquiries and subsequently advised the NSW Port Authority that the vessel had been cleared by NSW Health.
"The ABF did not seek to shape or influence any view or decision by the NSW Port Authority. This is not ABF's role."
The statement said the department had "completed its immigration and customs clearance functions".
"The ABF Commissioner has clearly outlined at length the ABF's role in this matter and stated that vessels that were already on the water, coming to Australia at the time of the ban, could continue their journey to Australia."
Raiding the ship
The handling of the Ruby Princess – which is linked to about 10 per cent of Australia's confirmed coronavirus cases – is considered one of the biggest blunders in the country's fight against the outbreak.
The ship is still floating off shore at Port Kembla with 1040 crew members on board who are undergoing medical assessments.
Last night, investigators from NSW Strike Force Blast, wearing personal protective equipment, boarded the ship to conduct inquiries and obtain a crucial "black box" containing evidence that may assist the criminal probe.
"They spoke to the captain of the ship, who was extremely helpful," NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said this morning.
"Ships have a black box very similar to that of international planes and that and other evidence has been seized for further investigation. And that is just sort of part one of the investigation.
"I can confirm there's still over 1000 crew members on the ship. We're working closely with Carnival [the ship's operator]. Three-quarters at this stage say they want to remain on the ship. They feel safe on the ship. And I think that's a good outcome from the fact."
Police are expected to interview other high-priority witnesses as they establish the sequence of events that led to the ship being allowed to dock at Sydney.
On Monday Fuller confirmed the criminal investigation and said there was "clear evidence" coronavirus was brought off the ship.
He said it was "too early to tell" whether a crime had taken place but there were "absolute discrepancies" in the case and "a lot more work to be done".
The NSW Government is under fire over its handling of the Ruby Princess cruise liner. Test results released by the government on March 20 showed four passengers had contracted the virus while on-board, but by that time 2647 people had left the ship.
Last week an "upset" NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian defended the actions of NSW Health and the Australian Border Force.
"NSW Health assures me that they exceeded their protocols in what they had to do," Berejiklian told 2GB last week.
"Everybody on board who disembarked was instructed to self-isolate, and that is a fact.
"Of course all authorities needed to step up and tighten the protocols, which is exactly what we did in NSW, which is why Commissioner Fuller is now in charge of dealing with all the federal authorities."
Berejiklian said NSW Health "relied on advice provided by the ship".
"We've had advice that health authorities followed the protocols," Berejiklian said. "The protocols have since been changed.
"Don't you think I'm upset? I live this and breathe this every day of my life and I'm as upset as everybody else. But it's not right to point the finger until we get to the bottom of what happened."
New Zealand visit
The Ruby Princess berthed in Napier on March 15, one of the last New Zealand port visits by any liner and ultimately the last port of call in the country on a shortened New Zealand cruise before heading to Sydney where it disembarked passengers.
The boat's docking has led to a cluster of Covid-19 cases in Hawke's Bay, including six in Gladys Mary Care Home in Napier.
One of the 12 nationally significant clusters in New Zealand, it involves 16 people who have tested positive for Covid-19, comprising up to 10 Hawke's Bay people - four tour guides or bus drivers, the six linked to the rest home, and six New Zealand passengers from the liner.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday she had asked Attorney General David Parker to seek legal advice on whether the Ruby Princess and its operators had fulfilled all legal obligations.
The Prime Minister said that "of course" the obligation on the cruise company was to ensure no unwell person disembarked in the circumstances that were developing.
In relation to the Napier call, she said: "I have been advised that those assurances were directly sought by the Medical Officer of Health from the captain directly before individuals disembarked."
-With Hawke's Bay Today