Gladys Berejiklian has apologised unreservedly to people who “suffered as a result of mistakes” made by New South Wales Health in its handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship.
However, the premier said she would not take any disciplinary action or make any structural changes to NSW Health, due to commissioner Bret Walker finding that there were “no systemic failures to address”.
On Friday, the NSW special inquiry into the ship – which has resulted in 28 deaths and more than 900 cases of Covid-19 – delivered its final report after more than 20 days of hearings and evidence.
It found that NSW Health made multiple “serious”, “inexplicable” and “basic” errors, but declined to make any recommendations against NSW Health staff.
Walker wrote that there were “no systemic failures to address” and it was “unhelpful to make recommendations to experts that in truth amount to no more than ‘do your job’”.
But on Monday the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, confirmed that a criminal investigation into the ship would continue and could result in charges of criminal negligence.
“There are still 13 police working full time in relation to that collecting evidence,” Fuller said. “The roles of the special commission inquiry and the criminal investigation are different. So from our perspective we will continue to look at anyone who had, I suppose, a role or responsibility in the Ruby Princess.
“The questions that were asked at the special commission of inquiry certainly are different to one when you’re investigating criminal negligence.”
On Monday, Berejiklian told reporters that NSW Health had “learned a lot” since the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock on 19 March, and all its passengers were allowed to disembark and travel interstate and overseas.
“I now apologise unreservedly to anybody who suffered as a result of the mistakes that were outlined in the report undertaken by individuals within the health department or the health agency,” she said.
“Mr Walker acknowledged there were no systemic issues but there were mistakes by individuals at a particular time. I know that lessons have been learned.
“Had he said there were systemic issues I would have dealt with that immediately, but he goes to some length to say that he has confidence in the people involved and that these were not systemic issues.”
The premier said many of the staff of NSW Health “were thrown into situations they hadn’t experienced before”.
Walker’s report found that NSW Health’s expert panel committed multiple “serious” errors in handling the Ruby Princess and effectively “did nothing”.
Walker found that the panel did not all read the ship’s log of acute respiratory diseases, and did not pay enough attention to a new guideline issued by the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia which meant that all passengers on board with flu symptoms should have been tested.
Instead, the ship was classified as “low risk” on 18 March and passengers were allowed to disembark without test results being returned.
“In light of all the information the expert panel had, the decision to assess the risk as ‘low risk’ – meaning, in effect, ‘do nothing’ – is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable,” the report found. “It was a serious mistake.”
However, Walker concluded that “it should not be thought though that, by some misguided reflex, recommendations should follow”.
He also declined to make any recommendations against the cruise ship’s operator, Carnival Australia, and said the Australian Border Force had “no relevant responsibility” and did “not play any part in the mishap”.
The commissioner said calls for the resignation of the state’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, were based on a “farcical” idea of government.
Hazzard told reporters on Monday he stood by Walker’s assessment of his ministerial responsibility and of the recommendations.
“The commissioner made it very clear that there were no systemic issues and he also made it very clear that he wasn’t recommending disciplinary action. I think we have faith in commissioner Walker’s views.”
NSW saw seven new coronavirus cases in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday, chief health officer Kerry Chant told reporters on Monday. Six were locally acquired and one person was in hotel quarantine.
Three of the locally acquired cases were linked with the Chopstix Asian Cuisine restaurant at Smithfield RSL, and two were linked to cases at Our Lady of Mercy College.
One of the positive cases attended Sydney Girls High School between 6 and 11 August while infectious, and another case attended work at Parramatta Local Court on 12 August. Contact tracing is underway for both cases.