The secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has conceded his officers did not follow national protocols during the Ruby Princess debacle.
Andrew Metcalfe has also apologised to the Senate committee examining the Morrison government’s response to Covid-19 for “any perception” that he might previously have given misleading evidence.
Metcalfe faced questioning in Canberra on Tuesday after the Ruby Princess inquiry last Friday found that New South Wales Health made multiple “serious”, “inexplicable” and “basic” errors when allowing passengers from the cruise ship to disembark in Sydney in March – although the Walker inquiry didn’t make recommendations against the department.
While the Walker inquiry made no criticism of Australian Border Force officers, who were also present, Metcalfe acknowledged there was some adverse commentary about the role played by his officials.
The federal departmental head acknowledged the inquiry had found, “and we fully accept, there are some areas for improved action”. The Walker inquiry found that federal officers charged with biosecurity responsibilities did not conduct a traveller illness checklist after NSW health officials had assessed that the vessel was “low risk”.
Metcalfe acknowledged that the system, which involved administering the checklist, “was not followed” before passengers disembarked. “I am advised that on this particular occasion our officer only relied on the NSW medical assessment”.
The departmental head said he welcomed Tuesday’s opportunity to clarify evidence he had given previously to the committee suggestive that proper protocols had been followed. Metcalfe has previously told the committee his officers “acted in accordance with the relevant health protocols and on the advice of the health authorities”.
On Tuesday he said: “I would take this opportunity to apologise to the committee if there is any perception whatsoever that I have misled, however inadvertently, the committee.
“That absolutely was not my intention and I am grateful for this opportunity to seek to clarify my earlier evidence,” Metcalfe said.
Metcalfe said things had gone wrong during the Ruby Princess episode because a system designed to identify and respond to risks “which had worked well on other occasions clearly didn’t do that on this occasion [and] that impacted very severely on many people”.
The secretary was asked by the Labor senator Kristina Keneally to identify the federal officer who had given the passengers permission to disembark from the cruise ship. Metcalfe described the process passively. He said one of his officers had given “practical” permission by not seeking to prevent passengers departing the ship.
The secretary did not name the official, but said: “I think it’s pretty clear it was an authorised officer.
“The reason it is clear is because people started leaving the ship,” Metcalfe says.
Metcalfe accepted that events on that morning were neither “crisp, nor formal”. He said officers from his department “adopted a local practice at the Port of Sydney” and that was “a clear lesson that has been learned”.
“The system did not work as it should have. I’m not resiling from the fact that we are part of the system,” Metcalfe said. “We have very much learned from this situation.”
Keneally said Tuesday’s mea culpa wasn’t good enough. “Only federal agriculture officials can give a human health clearance for passengers to leave a cruise ship, but in the Covid Senate hearing, agriculture officials gave a farcical performance”.
“They admitted they did not do the required human health checks onboard the Ruby Princess, and they could not say who gave the human health clearance, when it was given, or even if it was given at all before 2,700 passengers started leaving the ship.”