Australia yesterday reported a jump in coronavirus cases that was almost entirely due to passengers who disembarked a cruise ship in Sydney several days ago, prompting widespread criticism of the official response to the pandemic.
The ship, Carnival Corp’s Ruby Princess, became the country’s largest source of coronavirus infections as one of its passengers also became the eighth fatality nationally.
In a chain of events described by New South Wales (NSW) Police Minister David Elliott as a “monumental stuff-up,” about 2,700 passengers were allowed to leave the ship when it docked in Sydney on Thursday last week.
By yesterday, about 130 of those passengers had tested positive and officials were frantically hunting down other travelers to test them and track their movements.
Australia stepped closer to a full lockdown yesterday, with authorities warning of harsher penalties for anybody violating self-isolation orders as they began to worry that hospitals were starting to feel the strain.
With 1,984 cases, Australia has registered significantly lower rates of COVID-19 compared to elsewhere in the world, but the infection rate has quickened in recent days and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it was now at a “critical stage.”
While schools officially remained open in most of the country, parents were strongly advised to keep their children home, as all other non-essential services, including movie theaters, pubs and houses of worship, were closed for the first full day.
“We are ramping up our compliance,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. “There are harsh penalties and we’ll enforce that. We have to take this seriously.”
Carnival Corp said it was “profoundly sorry” to learn that the Ruby Princess passenger, a woman in her 70s, had died.
Authorities had initially classified the ship as low risk because it was returning from an 11-day round trip to New Zealand, despite around a dozen passengers showing signs of ill health.
About 60 percent of the passengers were Australian, and 20 percent were from the US, ship records showed.
The ship had been rated “medium risk” after its previous cruise, again to New Zealand. On that trip, some 158 passengers registered high temperatures.
Nine were tested on arrival in Sydney on March 8 and were allowed to disembark before passengers for the most recent cruise embarked later the same day.
A couple from the prior cruise who flew on to Darwin later tested positive for COVID-19.
As the Ruby Princess case numbers rose, officials denied passengers on the Swiss-owned MSC Magnific cruise permission to disembark on the west coast, despite MSC Cruises’ assurances that none showed any signs of a respiratory or flu-like illness.
Australia’s move to a stricter lockdown was beginning to show visible signs of social stress with long lines forming outside offices of the main welfare agency across the country.
For many, there has been anger over mixed messages from officials in Australia’s system of federal and state governments, which are separately responsible for regulating different services.
The operation of schools has been a flashpoint, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison advising they remained open and safe for students to attend, while some state leaders urged parents to keep their children home.
“It is as clear as mud and no wonder parents are confused out there,” opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese told Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio.
Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday said she has asked Morrison to authorize a “short-term exception” to allow New Zealanders living and working in Australia to have access to welfare benefits.
The Labor Party Labor also urged the government to use expanded powers endorsed by the Australian Senate on Monday night to allow the more than 1.6 million temporary visa holders in the country immediate access to special benefit payments to prevent hundreds of “trapped” migrants who lose work becoming destitute.
Additional reporting by the Guardian
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