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NSW Premier announces Special Commission of Inquiry into Ruby Princess

NSW Premier announces Special Commission of Inquiry into Ruby Princess

Published on April 16, 2020 by Elizabeth EdgarElizabeth Edgar

As the death toll from the Ruby Princess continues to rise, the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian has now established a Special Commission of Inquiry[1] to look into the circumstances surrounding the decision to allow 2,700 passengers to disembark the ship in Sydney.

The Terms of Reference of the Special Commission of Inquiry, led by Barrister Bret Walker SC, are wide ranging. [2]

  1. The knowledge, decisions and actions of Ruby Princess crew, medical staff and the ship operator, Princess Cruises, with respect to cases or potential cases of respiratory infections on the ship.  
  2. The information provided to, communications between, and decisions and actions of Commonwealth and NSW agencies, including the Australian Border Force, the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, NSW Health, the NSW Police Force, NSW Ambulance and the Port Authority of NSW. 
  3. Policies and protocols applied by Princess Cruises and Commonwealth and NSW Government agencies with respect to managing suspected or potential COVID-19 cases.
  4. Communications by Commonwealth and NSW Government agencies to passengers disembarking the Ruby Princess. 
  5. Any other related matters that the Commissioner considers appropriate

The Special Commission of Inquiry will run in addition to the criminal investigation previously announced by the NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller and will report by the 14th August 2020.

The NSW Police criminal investigation is expected to be completed in September. A separate coronial inquiry could still be instigated for the eighteen deaths already linked to the Ruby Princess, which could take more than a year to finalise.

In announcing the Inquiry Premier Berejiklian has vowed to “leave no stone unturned” and acknowledged that “it is important that answers are provided quickly for the people of NSW”. Where the ill fated decisions made by those responsible has led to more than 600 cases of COVID-19 and the possibilities of further deaths, it is high time that we have answers as to exactly who was responsible for those decisions.

If in fact the ship’s operator, Carnival Cruises knew or ought to have known about the potential COVID-19 cases before it allowed some 2,700 passengers to disembark into Sydney, potentially infecting hundreds of others, it seems inevitable that legal action will follow.

For the crew still remaining on the ship, of which 128 have tested positive to COVID-19, the Special Commission of Inquiry should also provide answers as to who was responsible for their contraction of the virus and what recourse they have against their employer.

Whether a worker is entitled to workers’ compensation in New South Wales will depend on whether it can be established that the virus was contracted in the course of their employment and that their employment was the main contributing factor to the worker contracting the disease.

The NSW Greens party have proposed a bill to exempt essential workers from having to prove where they contracted COVID-19. For those working at the frontline, such an exemption would be a welcome reprieve to bypass liability disputes which are often difficult and lengthy processes.[3]

While the Ruby Princess is expected to leave Australian waters shortly, the aftermath of its visit and the decisions of those in charge – including those with responsibility for allowing passengers to disembark – will remain under the microscope for many months to come.

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