An eminent Sydney barrister has been granted unlimited powers to investigate the Ruby Princess fiasco, with 19 coronavirus deaths and hundreds of cases across Australia now linked to the cruise ship.
The NSW government on Wednesday established a special commission of inquiry into the Sydney disembarkation of the Ruby Princess, to be led by Bret Walker SC.
The inquiry will report back within four months, with a NSW Police investigation running in parallel to the probe but likely to finish afterwards.
A coronial inquest into the 19 deaths may also be launched by the state coroner, but no decision has yet been made.
Mr Walker – who also oversaw the 2007 special commission of inquiry into Sydney Ferries and recently led Cardinal George Pell’s successful criminal appeal to the High Court – will examine the ship’s departure and arrival.
He will also look into the role of NSW and federal agencies in the ship’s disembarkation, as well as that of the cruise ship operator.
The Ruby Princess departed Sydney on March 8 for New Zealand and returned on March 19.
Some 2700 passengers were permitted to disembark the ship without adequate health checks, which federal border authorities blame on NSW Health.
The ACT government on Wednesday confirmed a woman in her 60s who travelled on the Ruby Princess died of coronavirus – the 19th such case nationwide.
Mr Walker will have unlimited powers in the execution of his duty, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, and will not receive direction from government or bureaucracy.
He will receive all relevant information already garnered by NSW Police.
“He is an eminent barrister, he knows and is aware of the powers he has. It’s a matter for him on how he proceeds,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters on Wednesday.
“The NSW Police investigation is now focused on matters of a criminal nature … therefore we have to let the police do what they do.”
Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz welcomed the news, saying there were important lessons to learn as the world adapted to COVID-19.
“It is painful for Princess to be in a situation of potential conflict with those we work with and respect,” Ms Swartz said in a statement.
“We hope these inquiries will provide a basis for fair, open and positive discussions that will allow us all to learn more about this virus and re-build connections between all of us.”
There are now some 140 crew aboard the Ruby Princess with confirmed cases of COVID-19, while another 12 crew members have been evacuated to NSW hospitals.
Police Commissioner Mick Fuller on Wednesday said the ship – which is docked at Port Kembla – could leave Australia by Sunday after authorities last week seized its black box and conducted interviews.
He said police offered to help repatriate some crew members but the cruise ship operator had been slow to respond.
NSW opposition leader Jodi McKay welcomed the special commission of inquiry but said there was a humanitarian crisis on the cruise ship.
She said crew members were scared, anxious, and were “not being communicated with at all in regard to the decisions that appear to be made on their behalf”.
NSW had 16 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, taking the total to 2886.
Some 29 people are being treated in intensive care but there were no new deaths recorded overnight, with the NSW toll remaining at 26.
Six staff and four residents linked to the Anglicare’s Newmarch House aged care facility in western Sydney had by Wednesday tested positive to the coronavirus.
It comes after an employee is said to have worked for six days with mild respiratory symptoms before testing positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, police have charged three people under the Public Health Act and issued 52 fines since Tuesday afternoon as they continue to enforce COVID-19 restrictions.