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Confidence testing for at-border delivery of critical human biosecurity functions – Ruby Princess cruise ship incident

Shipping COVID-19 Risk Sector regulation Tourism Biosecurity Public health Infectious diseases Australia New South Wales

As part of its response to the risks posed by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic overseas, the Australian Government banned the entry of foreign-flagged cruise ships into Australian waters (with limited exceptions) from 18 March 2020. The ban has since been extended.

On 26 August 2020, the Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. David Littleproud MP, formally requested that the Inspector-General undertake a review of relevant matters that arose through the arrival of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney, New South Wales, in March 2020. Almost 2,700 passengers, some with cold and influenza-like symptoms, were allowed to leave the ship. Weeks after the incident, more than 663 passengers and crew tested positive to COVID-19 and 28 passengers died.

The Biosecurity Act 2015 is jointly administered by Health and Agriculture. The Act provides a range of powers to the Federal Minister for Health, the Director of Human Biosecurity (part of Health portfolio) and the Director of Biosecurity (Secretary, Agriculture), specifically for the protection of health of all Australians. These powers include entry and exit screening of international travellers, management of ill travellers, vector monitoring and control, and flexible emergency and preventative powers.

The working relationship between Health and Agriculture is formalised through a detailed MoU that sets out the representation, expectations, roles and responsibilities of each agency at strategic, policy and operational levels. Under the MoU, the 2 agencies have specific roles:

• Health undertakes human health risk assessments and develops pre-border and border management policies that prevent or reduce the impact on the Australian community and health systems of significant communicable disease (including a Listed Human Disease) threat entering, establishing or spreading in Australian territory.

• Agriculture operationalises Health’s policies for managing human biosecurity risks at the first points of entry across Australia.

This review examines (or ‘tests’) the level of ‘confidence’ that can be had in Agriculture’s management of the Vessels Pathway to deliver critical human biosecurity functions at the Australian border (first points of entry).

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