Transcript: ABF Commissioner Michael Outram APM Press Conference

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I’m here to provide you with an update on the cruise ship situation nationally around Australia. And you’d remember that on 16 March, the Australian Government implemented a cruise ship ban. That ostensibly banned all foreign cruise ships from coming into Australian waters. But at that time, you’d recall, there was a number of cruise ships already on the water, either those that had left a Sydney port and were coming back to a Sydney port, or those that had already left international ports and were destined for Australia. And they were exempt from the ban. Obviously, we didn’t want to strand any ships, passengers and crews, at sea. And at that time, in fact there were 13 of those vessels at sea, at that moment. And on 27 March the Minister for Health issued a declaration- a determination under the Biosecurity Act that required the operators of cruise ships that were flagged or registered in other countries, to remove those cruise ships from Australian territorial waters. Two days later, on 29 March, I wrote to all the cruise ship operators, requiring them to remove their cruise ships from Australian territorial waters, in compliance with the Health Minister’s biosecurity declaration. Under the terms of that declaration, they were entitled to ask for permission to remain in Australia for particular reasons, and a number of them did. And I then considered those requests for permission to remain in Australian waters.

On 4 April this year- the Saturday just gone – I responded to all of the cruise ship operators, having considered their request for permission to remain in Australian waters. And I advised them that their requests were all denied. And as a result, they were all to direct their vessels to leave Australian waters as soon as they had been able to refuel and resupply. On Saturday, when I issued those orders- or those notices, there were 20 cruise ships in Australian waters. At this point in time today, 13 of those 20 have left – or are in the process of leaving today – Australian ports and seas. And by Thursday, we expect a further four to have departed. So that’s about 13,500 crew that we have successfully managed to remove from Australian waters.

Now, the key point here is, of course, had those crew become sick, it’s a big strain on the Australian health system, and that’s what this is all about. We’ve been working tirelessly with state and territory counterparts around the country to bring about this outcome. That is port operators, state and territory governments, state and territory police, state and territory health services and departments. But I also want to acknowledge and thank some of the cruise ship operators, particularly Royal Caribbean and Carnival for their cooperation, because they had the biggest fleets in Australia and they are working hard to get their ships gone certainly by the weekend. There will be, of course, a couple of ships left in Australia, you’d appreciate that, and the Ruby Princess being one of those in Sydney, and the Artania over there in Perth.

And I’m happy to take any questions now. Thank you.

QUESTION: Sir, are you aware of the Federal Court case by one to organise against being- whether their ships now in Darwin, I understand, being forced out of Australia?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yes. we are aware of a court case. It’s going on in- up in the Northern Territory in relation to a vessel called the Caledonian Sky, and we’re working through that. Let me make clear the Government’s policy intent here, is that all cruise ships that were in Australian waters, they’re not flagged or registered in Australia, they are to depart Australian waters, and we are working to achieve that outcome.

QUESTION: Would success in that one case, the Caledonian Sky, could that be transferred to all the other ships that didn’t want to leave Australia?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, every ship is individual. I wouldn’t say all ships are the same. But what I would say is this: that all ships we’re focused here, are either registered in or flagged in another country.

QUESTION: Is it your view that New South Wales Health made a mistake with the Ruby Princess?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I think I have been on the record here. I went on the record a couple of weeks ago and went through all the facts as they relate to Australian Border Force in relation to the Ruby Princess. And I said then, I will say it again now, I’m not in the game of apportioning blame to other agencies or departments. I just want to put on the record, and I did that day exactly what happened in relation to the Australian Border Force and our roles and responsibilities.

QUESTION: There is an argument that Border Force has ultimate control of our borders. So why was that not the case with that situation?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Ultimate control is a big term. Our responsibilities relate to customs and immigration. As I said on that day, what the Border Force doesn’t have is a human biosecurity or medical function. I don’t have any people in my organisation with those specific skills.

QUESTION: Commissioner, earlier last week a medical team was taken onto the Ruby Princess to assess the situation with the virus, and sickness on the ship in general. New South Wales Police are saying because that it was the ABF team who commissioned that, commissioned the Aspen Medical team to do that assessment, they’re not able to release the report that was produced as a result. Is that- to your knowledge, is that the case, so is the ABF responsible for that, and if not, who is? How can the public see that medical report?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: what I would say is this, we are dealing with a very complicated situation on the Ruby Princess. We have 200 of those- over a thousand crew who’ve got mild flu-like symptoms. And we’re working through that. Now, Aspen Medical were brought in as experts. As people would be aware, Aspen Medical have experience in relation to the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, also in relation to other cruise ship issues recently in San Francisco, and also in West Africa in relation to Ebola. So we needed experts to come in and give us guidance on how we could manage this situation on the Ruby Princess. And the important thing to bear in mind here is that we’re trying to get the Ruby Princess in a situation where it and its crew can safely depart Australian waters. And they’ve given us advice in relation to that, and of course that advice at the moment is quite confidential, parts of it. And so yeah, it’s our report, and we’ll consider what parts should be released publicly in due course.

QUESTION: What’s the plans to get those 1000 crew members off the ship once the 10-day quarantine period is up?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, the intention isn’t to get them all off, in fact. I mean, if there are those crew members who are well, and for example, charter flights were able to be arranged for well and fit crew members to go to other countries, then with New South Wales Police we’d facilitate that, of course. But the intention here is to get through a quarantine period with people on the ship. Now, the ship does have a very good medical facility on board, and with the addition of Aspen Health, and of course New South Wales Health there as well. We’re reasonably confident we can get ship into a position where it can safely depart Australian waters with its crew on board.

QUESTION: What kind of timeframe are you looking at for them to depart?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Ten days is what we’re aiming for.

QUESTION: Sorry if you’ve already answered this, but how many crew members have actually tested positive for COVID-19 on board?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I don’t know how many have tested positive, but there’s about 200 who are mildly ill. And of course, if people become more severely ill, then they are being tested. And of course, if they need hospital treatment, then that’s been provided by New South Wales Health Service.

QUESTION: Just on the Artania ship off WA – there’s that rush for mercy flights to get the crew out of WA. Is there any update on that? If we can expect it, when we can expect it, and so on.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I don’t know if I’d call them mercy flights because the crew of the Artania, of course, they’ve asked for help, and that help is being provided over there in Western Australia. It’s similar to the Ruby Princess, that we’re working now with the crew and with medical experts in Fremantle to get the crew of the Artania fit and well, so that that ship can depart and take it and its crew back to Europe. And that’s what everybody wants. Now we are, of course, working with the ship’s operators and with other governments through DFAT, to see whether or not repatriation flights are feasible. If repatriation flights to other countries for large numbers of those crew are feasible, we will of course work with Western Australian Police in this case to facilitate that.

QUESTION: But at the moment, we don’t have any confirmation if that is feasible?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: No, no confirmation at all at the moment. But if that can occur within the quarantine period, we would facilitate it.

QUESTION: Commissioner, talking about the borders more broadly, this pandemic obviously presents a real risk for Australia, particularly the northern parts of the country that are quite close to other Pacific nations that may not necessarily have the capacity to suppress and control the virus in the way that we are able. Are there other measures being put in place? What kind of border work is being done in terms of movement of people potentially into Australia as this pandemic worsens?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: So, that’s a very good question. So, you’d be aware that the Australian Border Force, we have a presence up in the Torres-Strait, for example. And a presence over the Coral Sea in terms of our maritime border commands. So we fly aerial surveillance and we have maritime patrols in the Coral Sea and the Torres-Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Arafura Sea, and all the way out through Ashmore Reef. We fly routine aerial surveillance patrols over those areas, and we have a number of Border Force officers deployed up there. We also, of course, have state police and Australian defence assets as well. So, we have a pretty good layer of defence across the top end.

One more question.

QUESTION: What reasons are those remaining foreign registered ships giving for not leaving?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, let me say that in terms of the Ruby Princess and the Artania in Perth, it’s based purely on getting the crew well and getting those ships into a position where they’re able to safely depart Australia without any risk to life at sea. And as I’ve said, there’s a legal case in relation to another ship that I don’t want to go into details of.

Thank you all.

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