Six crew members aboard a livestock ship docked at Fremantle Port have tested positive for COVID-19, with fears the remaining 42 crew will also come down with the disease.
Premier Mark McGowan announced the new cases this afternoon, saying he was only informed of the situation this morning.
Each of the six infected crew members from the Al Kuwait ship have been removed and are currently in quarantine in a Perth hotel.
The remaining crew are still on board the ship, which is currently docked at Fremantle Port after arriving on May 22.
“We suspect it is more than likely more crew members may become infected with the virus,” Mr McGowan said.
“This is an extremely concerning situation that we find ourselves in.”
Besides those removed after testing positive to COVID-19, none of the crew have left the vessel at any point since it docked at Fremantle Port – however, as many as six West Australians have boarded and disembarked the ship since it arrived.
In line with standard practice, a Fremantle port worker wearing personal protective equipment boarded the ship on May 22 to help steer the Al Kuwait into berth.
“That person, and any relevant closes contacts are now in isolation,” Mr McGowan said.
“It was not until Sunday evening that the Fremantle Port Authority heard of some issues on the ship. That was through word of mouth from another worker in the port and the information was then reported through the usual channels.”
In relation to the other Perth residents who have boarded the ship, the Premier said: “Clearly we are isolating and tracing those people at the moment because we are concerned for them and concerned for their families.”
The Al Kuwait was granted permission by the Commonwealth Government to dock at Fremantle Port on May 22, despite a May 20 report that three crew members had elevated temperatures.
Mr McGowan insisted the Al Kuwait was not a repeat of Sydney’s Ruby Princess disaster because none of the crew had been permitted to disembark.
“The good thing is, they stayed on board. They’ve been tested, and those that were found positive are now in quarantine,” Mr McGowan said.
He said talks were ongoing to “get to the bottom” of why the Al Kuwait was approved for entry to Fremantle Port despite reports of crew members with fevers.
“The advice I have is (the Commonwealth) Department of Agriculture were informed but they didn’t tell the Fremantle Port Authority,” he said.
“Clearly, if there are cases of people reporting high temperatures on board that should be reported and red flags raised.”
The multinational crew includes two Australians.
Mr McGowan said his preference was for the Al Kuwait to leave “as soon as possible” but that it would need to be cleaned and disinfected first.
Further complicating the situation is a lack of cabins on board the vessel, making it difficult for crew to self-isolate on board away from each other.
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said Mr McGowan should not make assertions without having the full facts. He said all the appropriate protocols were adhered to and “elevated statements” should not be used.
“We are slowly working through this to make sure that we get this right before we make elevated statements in the public that raises anxiety unnecessarily,” Mr Littleproud told 6PR.
Mr Littleproud said the ship did not advise of elevated temperatures experienced by crew on board until May 22nd when the vessel was already berthed at Fremantle.
“On May 20 they did notify the department of agriculture that there were three people sick but they didn’t say there were elevated temperatures … having sick people on ships is pretty par for the course.
“It continued to be monitored but we understand that the information provided was that no one had an elevated temperature above 37 degrees and in fact before it even came to that they had to give a declaration that no one had been in contact with anyone who was COVID positive in the 14 days prior to coming to Australia.”
Mr Littleproud said his department was triple checking all the facts to make sure the information provided to him was correct. He said when Commonwealth officials boarded the ship they checked the vessel’s logs to “make sure that the captain and the master of the vessel in fact did give the right information to the Department of Agriculture”.
“They did advise on May 22 after the ship had docked … that the ship notified the Department of Agriculture that someone had elevated temperature and were showing symptoms. At that point we … immediately notified the WA department of health … all the protocols state or federal were adhered to,” he said.
“To make assertions of disappointment or anything you need to understand we need to go through this calmly and methodically and you also have to understand that when this boat does get to Australia none of the crew are allowed to get off the vessel they have to isolate for 14-days.”
Mr Littleproud said there were arrangements being made to return the ship to its home port and what would be best for the animals on board.
“We will just work practically and as quickly as we can on that,” he said.
The Al Kuwait has been operated by Kuwait Livestock Transport & Trading, whose subsidiary Rural Export & Trading (RETWA) is based in West Perth, since March.
The ship, previously named Ocean Shearer when owned by Wellard, left Fremantle under its new name and ownership in late April with about 60,000 sheep onboard.
It’s believed the ship was in Fremantle to load a new consignment.
Rural Export and Trading managing director Mike Gordon said the Al Kuwait had returned to Australia from the Gulf and reported some crew had felt ill with flu-like symptoms. On arrival in Fremantle “immediate medical consultation was sought”, he said.
He said “the master of the vessel is aware of the gravity of the situation and would like to reassure the public that all procedures outlined by the WA health department are being followed”.
“We are taking every precaution and are extremely concerned by the confirmation of the six people’s positive test results. The health and wellbeing of the vessels crews remains our top priority,” Mr Gordon said.
“We are working closely with WA health authorities, following their advice and ensuring the highest level care for the crew is in place. The crew on board have been communicating with their families to let them know they are safe and well provided for.”
The new cases come after a family of four in hotel quarantine in Perth on Monday tested positive after flying into WA from Qatar.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy revealed he had not been made aware of the situation at lunchtime during the meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
Professor Murphy told a Senate Committee investigating the Government’s response into COVID-19 that he had been updated by WA’s medical officer and had no prior knowledge about the outbreak.
“We were informed there was a livestock ship and there were some crew on board who tested positive and they were working out how to deal with them and deal with the ship but that’s all the information I have,” he said.
ACT Senator Katy Gallagher asked if it was a concern that the CMO was only made aware of the situation four days after the ship docked.
“I’m not even sure when these positive tests were confirmed,” Professor Murphy said.
International Transport Workers’ Federation inspector Keith McCorriston said he became aware there were people with COVID-19 symptoms on the ship on Sunday.
He said then had trouble notifying the State Government about the issue of sick seafarers.
“We’ve been told there is a number of seafarers on that ship that have the coronavirus symptoms,” Mr McCorriston said.
“The State Government has said there has been six, my information tells me there is a lot more than six on that ship now.
“I understand also that port State regulators, Australian Maritime Safety Authority inspector, was also on the ship over the weekend and I’ve been informed that he is actually in isolation as well.
“In terms of other seafarers or visitors of people that have been on the ship, I’m not aware of those numbers.”
Mr McCorriston said he was not sure why the situation had not been made clearer earlier but was pleased the State Government would now investigate.
“So we’re saying to the Government the ITF has got to be part of that process of communication because at the moment we’re not part of that at all we seem to be left behind,” he said.
“Our field of responsibility is to look after the welfare and wellbeing of international seafarers.
“We’re in contact with just about every ship, every crew member who comes into these ports.”
Source: The West Australian