The Ruby Princess by Duncan McNab

To be published 23/2/2021.

‘Put simply, despite the best efforts of all, some serious mistakes were made.’

When the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney on Thursday, 19 March 2020, no-one realised that a viral bomb was about to explode. But should they have? By then, COVID-19 was already circulating around the world. On 30 January 2020, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and it was declared as a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

Hours after the Ruby Princess docked, 2700 passengers disembarked. There were no health checks, and passengers dispersed across Australia as well as internationally. Eventually over 900 crew and passengers would be diagnosed with COVID-19, and 28 people would die from it. What went wrong?

In this book, Mr McNab explores both the history of the cruise industry and the series of events that led to this fiasco. Cruise ships, it would seem, are perfect breeding grounds for viral infection and many of the passengers (by virtue of their ages and or medical conditions) were particularly vulnerable. By including firsthand accounts from passengers and (usually anonymously) some crew members, Mr McNab enables the reader to see more clearly the human face of this tragedy.

It is easy, reading the sequence of events, conclude that this particular cruise should never have set sail in the first place.  It is easy, as well, to look at the failure to keep and then to provide contemporaneous records to NSW Health. If those records had been provided, then the arrival of the Ruby Princess may have been better managed.

On 15 April 2020, a Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess was established. The Special Commission was led by Bret Walker SC. The Report was handed to the NSW Government on 14 August 2020.

On 17 August 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said (in part):

‘NSW Health has acted immediately to address the failures identified by Mr Walker to ensure the errors are not repeated.

 The NSW Government will work closely with the Commonwealth to adopt all recommendations made by Mr Walker.’

 At the time Mr McNab was writing this book, there is still a NSW Police investigation in progress, and at some time in the future there may be a Coronial inquest.

I found this book eye opening. Whatever desire I had to undertake a cruise has entirely evaporated.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith