australia tries to send cruise ships packing for fear of covid 19 - Australia tries to send cruise ships packing for fear of covid-19

But on several the crew are too sick to sail away


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IN A NORMAL year Sydney can hardly cram enough cruise ships into its harbour. Australians are among the world’s most enthusiastic maritime tourists and the city’s famous Circular Quay doubles as a watery parking lot. Not any longer. Australia, like several other countries fearful of contagion, wants to cut them adrift. “New South Wales is not a safe haven for every cruise ship,” the state’s police chief, Mick Fuller, grumbled recently. They have become “one of the greatest frustrations of my life”, complained the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan.

The mood soured after a spectacular bungle involving the Ruby Princess—a vessel owned by Carnival, the world’s biggest cruise company. Dozens of its mostly Australian passengers developed flu-like symptoms while on a floating tour of New Zealand last month. Yet when the ship returned to Sydney on March 19th, all 2,700 of them were permitted to wander off to homes across the country. More than 660 have since tested positive for covid-19 and 12 have died, making the “death ship”, as local tabloids like to call her, the biggest source of Australia’s 6,000-odd cases of the novel coronavirus.

A criminal investigation into her docking is now under way. State and federal authorities point the finger at each other for failing to conduct the proper health checks. The “key question”, according to Mr Fuller, is whether Carnival was “transparent” in “contextualising the true patient and crew health conditions”. Some cruise companies have been lying about the health of those aboard their ships, says Peter Dutton, the home-affairs minister, who is recovering from the virus himself.

Australia had in theory shut its waters to cruise ships before the Ruby Princess arrived, but exemptions were made for Australian vessels and those already in transit. Several have since unloaded their passengers, but continued to loiter in or near Australian ports, each with hundreds of crew on board. This has prompted complaints that sick crew-members might, as one pundit put it, “take up beds that Australians could be using”. Allowing them to stay “could create a catastrophic effect on the Australian health system”, agreed Michael Outram, who heads the Australian Border Force. So on April 4th the government ordered the ships to weigh anchor and head for their “home” ports.

For some that seems impossible, and not just because they are registered in faraway places like Panama or the Bahamas. The Ruby Princess, which had been idling off New South Wales since her passengers disembarked, is stricken. More than 200 of her 1,400-strong crew are showing symptoms of covid-19. She has been allowed to berth at a port south of Sydney so that doctors can tend to them. Some of her most vulnerable patients have been sent to Australian hospitals.

In Western Australia, a German ship, the Artania, has stolidly ignored marching orders. She arrived in the port of Fremantle last month with an outbreak on board. More than 50 passengers have been admitted to nearby hospitals. Most of the remainder have been flown back to their home countries, but 450 or so crew members remain. The state government wants them gone (at one point Mr McGowan suggested that the navy might be used to shoo the ship away), but her captain fears for their health on the high seas. Australia has a “humanitarian obligation” towards the vessel, admits the country’s attorney-general, Christian Porter. “The Artania will stay here in Fremantle,” its captain asserts.

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