A new ship-related coronavirus cluster has emerged in Australia, stirring up a debate on the country’s shipping regulations and potential flaws in the system that could pose a threat to the public health system.
Namely, six crew members aboard a livestock carrier Al Kuwait, owned by Kuwait Livestock Transport & Trading, tested positive for coronavirus.
The vessel arrived from the United Arab Emirates and was allowed to dock in Fremantle last Friday after being granted permission to enter the port by Federal Authorities.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) said that the ships was cleared for docking despite the ship’s master notifying the Federal Department of Agriculture — which oversees quarantine measures on the waterfront — that several crew members were sick.
“After the ship’s arrival in port, Fremantle Ports became aware of information provided to it by a third party in relation to the possibility of a sick crew member on board the vessel, which resulted in relevant Government Authorities being alerted. The Department of Health then attended the vessel on Sunday afternoon to conduct checks of seven crew aboard the ship. The test results were confirmed yesterday morning, with six crew members testing positive,” Freemantle Ports said in a statement.
“The crew have been required to remain aboard the ship at all times, in line with current restrictions. All interactions with the Al Kuwait and its crew are being managed by WA Health and the WA Police Force. Apart from the six people now in isolation, no member of Al Kuwait’s crew has been ashore or will be allowed to go ashore.”
The port authority said it was likely that more crew members would be removed from the vessel.
According to local media reports, 27 crew members of a total of 48 have been evacuated from the ship and screened, awaiting test results.
They have been placed in a local hotel in Freemantle where they will stay for two weeks. Talks are reportedly underway to fly in a healthy crew from the UAE to take over the vessel, carrying thousands of sheep, now left in limbo.
MUA said that the new cluster has forced local maritime workers who boarded the vessel into self-isolation.
“Peter Hughes Drive, on Victoria Quay, has been closed in order to allow authorities to carry out their duties and also keep the public away from the vessel. The port is continuing to operate as normal,” Freemantle Ports added.
“The ship has not been loaded and is not due to depart at this point in time.”
MUA added the latest incident highlighted that the regulatory failures that allowed the Ruby Princess to dock in Sydney, starting the nation’s largest COVID-19 cluster, had still not been properly addressed.
“This latest coronavirus cluster reveals that five months into this crisis, and after repeated warning from the union and others in the industry, the Australian Government has still failed to properly address the major quarantine and biosecurity threats posed by international shipping,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said.
“The fact that this vessel notified Australian authorities two days before arrival of sickness onboard, but that information wasn’t passed on before it docked, shows the current system is broken.“
Crumlin called on the Federal Government to urgently address these issues, in collaboration with State and Territory Governments.
“In particular, we need immediate improvements to communication and collaboration between agencies, including the Agriculture Department, Border Force, Health Department, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and port authorities.“
“If an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs among the limited number of pilots in a port, or wharfies and other waterfront workers, the port would quickly grind to a halt, forcing all trade to stop completely.
“Addressing these risks requires an end to decades of deregulation, with proactive regulation and inspections to ensure all vessels operating in Australian waters abide by appropriate biosecurity, safety, environmental and industrial laws.”
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said that the issue of the 6 sailors has been taken over by WA Health in conjunction with its Department of Agriculture who have the responsibility under the Biosecurity Act to look at sailors that are sick at sea.
“They were advised according to the protocols several days before the ship docked in Fremantle and that information was passed on to WA Health at this time,” he said.
“The 6 sailors, by the way, are not severely unwell, they are in hotel quarantine, safely for them, safely for the public of WA and the other sailors on board are being monitored for their own health.”
Commenting on the connection between Ruby Princess and Al Kuwait, Kelly said that cruise ships remain banned from Australian waters so this is quite materially different from the Ruby Princess.
“We do, of course, want to continue trading with the rest of the world and that’s really important. And so we do have a fairly large number of ships coming with rather small crews and no passengers into Australian waters and we have a process in relation to that which has worked well this time and I’m very confident with how that is working, ” he added.