Transcript: 2GB Interview with ABF Commissioner Michael Outram APM

BEN FORDHAM: Thanks for tuning in this afternoon. We’ve received a call from the Australian Border Force Commissioner, Michael Outram. The boss of Border Force wanted to know if we were interested in getting an update on the Ruby Princess cruise ship. It’s currently docked at Port Kembla with a thousand crew on board. They’re isolating for the next nine days, a couple of hundred of them are sick apparently. The damage has already been done because passengers on two cruises were allowed to leave the Ruby Princess and spread coronavirus around Australia. It went from that ship to the dock through the suburbs of Sydney into the bush, on buses, trains and planes exposing family members, friends, workmates and strangers in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the ACT, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

Michael Outram, he’s the Australian Border Force Commissioner. He’s on the line. Commissioner, good afternoon.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Good afternoon, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: What is the update on the Ruby Princess?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well. I’ll come to the Ruby Princess. So, obviously on 16 March all cruise ship arrivals were banned in Australia, and the Ruby Princess in fact at that time was on water en route to Australia. It was a round trip cruise as you’d be aware that had left Sydney, was coming back into Sydney. And on 27 March, the Minister of Health determined on the Biosecurity Act that all foreign cruise ships there were foreign registered had to leave Australian waters. And at that time, we had 28 foreign cruise ships in Australia. I then wrote to all the operators, including the operators of the Ruby Princess which is Carnival, to require that they took their ships that were foreign registered out of Australian waters and require them to leave our territory. They were allowed on that determination then to make an application to stay. And I considered all the applications and quite a lot were made by the operators. And on 4 April I responded to them again and advised that their requests were denied. In the case of the Ruby Princess though, of course, I’ve had to make an exception there and I’ll come to that in a moment. So as that Saturday just gone, the 4 April, there were 20 vessels in our waters. At this point in time 13 of those 20 have left or are leaving today, and a further four will be gone by Thursday, all things being equal in terms of weather at Gladstone and such things. So that’s 13,500 crew that we’ve gotten out of Australian waters. And I want to say thanks to the cruise ship operators, particularly Carnival and Royal Caribbean for being so cooperative. Now the Ruby Princess, of course, and the Artania in Perth, they’re particular problematic because they’ve got people on board who need to be looked after in terms of medical attention before we can push them out to sea as it were. And I want to make sure before we send ships off into the sea that it’s safe to do so and I’m not risking lives. And so, we’ve brought the Ruby Princess up alongside at Port Kembla there and we’re working very closely, might I say, Ben, with New South Wales Police and obviously Aspen Medical who we brought in to assist the New South Wales Health. So our intention is to manage that ship up there alongside, work with the medical teams, keep all of the crew on there. There’s about 200 that’s been reported, about 200 who are mildly ill. Anybody who comes particularly ill, of course, has to be brought off and treated medically. But the idea is, is to keep them all isolated on board, implement those quarantine measures and get that ship on its way as soon as possible with its crew.

BEN FORDHAM: You’re doing your best at the moment to clean up this mess but we are counting the cost right around the country, people die every day as a result of coronavirus that was picked up and spread through the routes. It was allowed to go from a contained environment on the ocean to the dock in Sydney, and then on foot and on buses and on taxis and trains and planes, and spread through communities and friendship groups and workgroups. Through Sydney into regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, WA, ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania. When will we know the truth about who made the mistakes that allowed this to happen?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, Ben, you’d be aware I gave quite a detailed explanation a couple of weeks ago in relation to the Border Force’s role. I won’t make any more comments about that. I’m focused at the moment in working with New South Wales Police and health and other police and health departments around the country to make- as you say rightly, first of all, we manage the cruise ship problem, because it’s a very complicated problem, it’s been a real problem for us. No doubt in the fullness of time all the facts and all the details will come out, and we may need to look at our federated border arrangements at that point in time.

BEN FORDHAM: You’ve made pretty clear already though that you think the New South Wales Health made a mistake after originally the finger was pointed in the direction of Border Force.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well look, I just presented some facts, I didn’t point the finger of blame, and I’m pretty keen to work with New South Wales to resolve issues on the Ruby Princess now. So, I was really keen just to state facts rather than point the finger of blame, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay, can you just resolve something for me. There are two cruises in play, one that finished on 8 March and one that started on 8 March. 158 passengers on the first cruise were sick, 13 had temperatures above 38 degrees. When it cruised into Sydney Harbour, should those people have been free to go home and into the community? Or should they have been stopped from disembarking until we knew if coronavirus was on that ship?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: So Ben, what I say is that in the Border Force I don’t have any medical or nursing or biosecurity expertise, that’s not our job, so I wouldn’t really want to make comment on that. I’ll leave that for others to be, obviously, the judge and the arbiters in relation to those decisions.

BEN FORDHAM: We now know that at least one couple left that first cruise, they flew to Darwin and later tested positive to coronavirus. That same day thousands of passengers were queuing up to get on the next Ruby Princess Cruise. Can you answer this for me, Commissioner? Is it pretty clear to everyone now that those people should have been stopped from getting on that second cruise?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I don’t know if it’s clear yet. obviously there’d be a lot of inquiries to come, Ben, in relation to cruise ships generally, not just in Australia, might I say. But internationally obviously we had problems up there in Yokohama, problem with the United States, off South America at the moment we’ve got Australians currently stranded on cruise ships around the world as well. So I think that the whole global pandemic and how that relates to the issue of the cruise industry is something that there will be a lot of soul searching about I think into the future, and we’ll need to certainly, from an Australian point of view, have a look at our federated border arrangements in the future should such a pandemic occur again, there’s no doubt about that.

BEN FORDHAM: Sure, there’s also a big dose of common sense here. And I don’t pretend to be an armchair expert, but on that second cruise, the Ruby Princess sent New South Wales Health 15 swabs for coronavirus testing. Whose job was it to say to the cruise company we’re not allowing 2700 passengers to disembark until we get the results of those COVID-19 swab tests?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, as I said on the record a couple of weeks ago from our point of view on the Border Force, we clear the customs side of the vessel and the immigration side of the vessel. And we wait for advice from the experts in relation to biosecurity medical before letting people off. So, I’ll leave it there, as I say, I stated a lot of facts on the record a couple of weeks ago and I’d refer you and your listeners to that interview and to the questions that I answered on that day. Because I thought it was important just to state some facts and get some information out there.

BEN FORDHAM: And just to state some facts, health officers or trained doctors should have gone on board that vessel and conducted the appropriate tests before anyone made any further decisions, correct?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, I don’t know what the standard operating procedures are. As I say, we aren’t the health or the biosecurity experts on the Border Force, Ben. So I don’t want to pretend to know what should or shouldn’t have happened according to other organisations, you know. I think that’s a matter for them to explain rather than me. And I think it’s really important, I might say this, I don’t want to get into the finger pointing game., what I’ve been focused on with New South Wales Police and New South Wales Health and Aspen, is actually solving a really complicated problem that’s at hand. And that is the Ruby Princess now and there are over 1000 crew that are on it. And how we can get that vessel and its crew safely away so that we can then just concentrate our medical resources on the Australian community because we’re going to need it.

BEN FORDHAM: You can also understand, Commissioner, why the average Australian wants another thing solved, and that is the mystery of who was responsible for this disgraceful decision that has now led to countless people dying as a result of getting coronavirus and hundreds of people dealing with coronavirus because they’ve got it as well.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I fully understand that, Ben, and as I say, I speak for my own organisation but not for others. And I’ve provided quite a lot of factual commentary about what my organisation did in relation to this, and other organisations will need to obviously explain that for themselves.

BEN FORDHAM: Everyone looks back on their own actions during a time like this. Is there anything in the Ruby Princess scandal that Border Force could have done better?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Look, I don’t know. My officers who go on there, we take advice in relation to biosecurity issues, as I said to you, my officers are not trained in terms of biosecurity. They’re not trained in relation to health decisions, and we take advice. So you know, from a customs and immigration point of view, it was pretty standard practice from a Border Force point of view. But going forwards, I think it’d be fair to say we need to look at the whole sort of federated arrangement [indistinct] my own personal opinion. Obviously it’s a matter of policy, but you know how states and the Commonwealth work together and how health and biosecurity and customs immigration all come together. There’ll be things that will no doubt be looked at in the future.

BEN FORDHAM: Just before I let you go, it’s one thing to conduct a review, but is someone going to have to pay the price here?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I don’t know about that, Ben. Again, you’re trying to draw me into comments about likely outcomes and people paying [inaudible]…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] People are dead. People are dead who would otherwise be alive if it wasn’t for the decision to allow all these people to disembark the Ruby Princess.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: My point there is, Ben, that I can only account for my own organisation and role in this. I don’t know the details of facts that took place in other organisations. What I do know is that we’re very focused on resolving the issues at hand. And to your point earlier on, we’ve reduced from 28 foreign cruise ships now down to just two or three by this coming weekend. That’s been a massive effort on our part to try and make sure we get no further problems like the Ruby Princess and no further problems in terms of crew on these vessels coming in and sort of, you know, putting a load on our health system. And that’s been my focus, looking to get that problem solved.

BEN FORDHAM: Before I let you go, how many crew members are ill at the moment on the Ruby Princess?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: As I said, about mildly ill, about 200 of the crew. And what we’re doing now is they’re all in isolation and we would expect over the next few days that number to come down. And of course, if the crew can’t infect each other then we can get that ship into a position where it can safely set sail. They’ve got a pretty good and advanced medical capability on board as it happens, and of course we’ve got Aspen Medical, we’ve brought them in and they’ve got expertise in infection control and things like Ebola. They were obviously up there in Yokohama involved in the Diamond Princess operation and off San Francisco Bay as well. So, we’ve got we’ve got the best expertise on the job to make sure that we can get that crew healthy and set sail.

BEN FORDHAM: Michael Outram, thanks so much for your time.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Thank you Ben. Thanks for having me on, appreciate it.

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