The political blame game is intensifying after a live export ship allowed to dock in Western Australia brought six new virus cases to the state.
Fremantle port workers may have been exposed to COVID-19 when they boarded the infected Al Kuwait that had apparently been cleared by a federal department to dock, despite knowing some of the crew were ill.
Now questions are being asked why it was allowed to berth at an Australian port during a pandemic.
WA Premier Mark McGowan says he never knew about the ship and Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud insisted there was no concern for the crew.
WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson says a report from the vessel was submitted to the federal Department of Agriculture advising some of the crew had fevers on Wednesday.
It was en route from the United Arab Emirates and the ship arrived in WA two days later.
Six of the 48 multinational crew have since tested positive to the virus.
The federal Agriculture department says it had been told three of the crew were ill, but none of them had elevated temperatures or COVID-19 symptoms before their arrival.
It only learnt crew members had fevers when they landed and immediately notified the WA health department, it said.
“The WA State Department of Health is responsible for the management of this incident, including all decisions relating to human health,” the federal department said in a statement.
“The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is confident that government protocols were met.”
No crew members were permitted to disembark and all federal department staff who attended the vessel wore full personal protective equipment.
The state government said its public health emergency operations centre received an email on Friday morning informing it three ill crew members had a temperature.
But it explicitly stated no concern for COVID-19 on the vessel and no respiratory illness present, along with making no request for assistance.
“The Human Biosecurity Officer was also not notified there was any issue of concern,” the state government said in a statement.
Mr Dawson said the Fremantle Port Authority did not know crew were ill until after the local workers went on board the ship.
Mr McGowan said he was concerned for the local workers and their families.
“We would have hoped that more red flags were raised that there were people who were sick on board so we could have been prepared,” he said on Tuesday.
Mr McGowan said he didn’t think information was deliberately withheld “but we certainly need to review the protocols”.
The port workers are being isolated and contact tracing is under way while the six crew who tested positive are being quarantined at a Perth hotel.
The remaining 42 are well and remain on board the vessel.
The Fremantle Port Authority only found out after up to half a dozen local workers boarded the ship, Mr Dawson said.
Mr McGowan says they are being isolated and contact tracing is under way.
Mr McGowan said he doesn’t want to “point fingers at this point in time” but state authorities are working to find out what went wrong.
“We’re very concerned and to a degree, disappointed,” he said on Tuesday.
“Clearly, if there’s cases of people reporting high temperatures on board… red flags should be raised.
“So I just say to everyone involved, in particular the Commonwealth agencies that knew about this, they need to be on guard and be alert.”
No Al Kuwait crew members had been permitted to disembark and all federal department staff attended the vessel wearing full personal protective equipment.
“The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is confident that government protocols were met,” the statement said.
Mr McGowan said the men who tested positive were being quarantined at a Perth hotel while the remaining 42 appeared well and were being kept on board.
They would be monitored and given health assessments as required.
“This is a fast evolving situation. But I suspect it is probably more than likely that more crew members may become infected with the virus,” he said.
Commissioner Dawson says he has been assured none of the crew disembarked.
Mr McGowan said the state government wanted the ship to set sail as soon as possible, but it needed to be cleaned first.
Mr Dawson suggested the federal agriculture department should do the fumigation, saying: “The Commonwealth have responsibilities here.”
Border Force said it completed all customs and immigration related clearances, but received no reports of illness on board the vessel on the day of or prior to its arrival in port.
The six new cases bring the number of active cases in WA to 12 after a Victorian family returned from Qatar with the disease on May 17.
Those four cases were confirmed on Monday, ending a streak of zero case days.
The family has been quarantining in a hotel since arriving.
“This situation again highlights that we are not free from this virus,” WA Health Minister Roger Cook said.
“There are still people getting sick and we are still at risk.
“We cannot be careful enough.”
The state government remains adamant the interstate border will remained closed for months.