Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly told reporters in Canberra on Saturday that health authorities were “learning things about the virus every day” and that it was now clear that the coronavirus had spread to some passengers through their meal trays.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Diamond Princess cruise ship,” Professor Kelly said.
“Unfortunately, the evidence is fairly strong now that crew delivering food and the trays themselves of food that were infected prolonged and then increased the number of cases that were being found on that cruise ship.”
President Donald Trump, who was the first world leader to impose a travel ban on China over the coronavirus, has expressed some reluctance to allow the Grand Princess passengers to be transferred to hospital on the US mainland, saying he would “rather have them stay on” the vessel.
“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Mr Trump said on Saturday.
The Grand Princess is the same ship that was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of at least 10 cases during its previous voyage, with some passengers on that trip having stayed aboard for the current voyage.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne would not commit to pursuing an evacuation mission to transfer the Australians to Darwin or Christmas Island when asked by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Professor Kelly said the situation was different from the Diamond Princess, from which hundreds of Australians were evacuated on a Qantas flight to Darwin, as only four citizens were on board.
Professor Kelly said he was scheduled to speak with US health authorities on Sunday to “get the latest update” on the Grand Princess “matter and I will be reinforcing that we all should learn from the Diamond Princess experience,” he said.
“It’s clear what happened over time in relation to the spread of the virus and how difficult it is to run a quarantine station, essentially, on a ship.”
An academic paper published in the Journal of Travel Medicine last week found that the infection rates on board the Diamond Princess would have been more than eight times lower if the ship had been evacuated in “a timely manner”.
By the time Japanese authorities lifted the weeks-long quarantine, 17 per cent of those on board had contracted COVID-19.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong called on the government to “consider its travel advice for Australians thinking of taking cruises” and work “proactively” with the Princess Cruises and US authorities “to ensure that testing and quarantining on the ship happens swiftly and effectively, and that the Australians on board can disembark as soon as possible”.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday asking him to give Labor assurances that the government was “giving full consideration” to upgrading the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel advice, “particularly for countries that have been identified as posing high or moderate risks”.
The department has not advised Australians against boarding cruise ships.
A DFAT spokesman said it had confirmed that four Australians were on board the Grand Princess cruise ship and that “US authorities are testing every person on board”.
“We are awaiting advice as to whether any of the Australians has contracted COVID-19,” the spokesman said.
“The Australian Consulate-General in San Francisco stands ready to provide consular assistance, in accordance with the Consular Services Charter, to any Australian citizen aboard the vessel, should they require it.”
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.