Australia on Tuesday reported a jump in coronavirus cases that was almost entirely due to passengers, who disembarked a cruise ship in Sydney several days ago.
The cruise ship has, however, prompted widespread criticism of the official response to the pandemic.
The ship, Carnival Corp’s Ruby Princess, became the country’s largest source of coronavirus infections as one of its passengers also became the eighth fatality nationally.
In a chain of events described by New South Wales state Police Minister, David Elliott, as a “monumental stuff-up’’, about 2,700 passengers were allowed to leave the ship when it docked in Sydney on March 19.
As at Tuesday, about 130 of those passengers had tested positive and officials were frantically hunting down other travellers to test them and track their movements.
Australia stepped closer to a full lockdown on Tuesday, with authorities warning of harsher penalties for anybody violating self-isolation orders as they began to worry that hospitals were starting to feel the strain.
With 1,984 cases, Australia has registered significantly lower rates of coronavirus compared to elsewhere in the world.
But the infection rate has quickened in recent days and NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said it was now at a “critical stage’’.
While schools officially remained open in most of the country, parents were strongly advised to keep their children home, as all other non-essential services, including cinemas, pubs and houses of worship, were closed for the first full day.
“We are ramping up our compliance.
“There are harsh penalties and we’ll enforce that.
“We have to take this seriously,’’ she told newsmen in Sydney.
Carnival Corp said it was “profoundly sorry” to learn that the Princess Ruby passenger, a woman in her 70s, had died.
“This sad development underlines the challenges we are all facing as a community in the battle against the impact of COVID-19,’’ the company said in an emailed statement.
Authorities had initially classified the ship as low risk because it was returning from an 11-day round trip to New Zealand, in spite of around a dozen passengers showing signs of ill health.
Ship records showed about 60 per cent of the passengers were Australian and 20 per cent were from the U.S.
NSW officials said, over the weekend, that allowing the passengers to disembark in Sydney was a “mistake”.
The ship had been rated “medium risk” after its previous cruise, again to New Zealand.
On that trip, some 158 passengers registered high temperatures.
Nine were tested on arrival in Sydney on March 8 and were allowed to disembark before passengers for the most recent cruise embarked later the same day.
A couple from the prior cruise, who flew on to Darwin later, tested positive for COVID-19.
As the Princess Ruby case numbers rose, officials denied passengers on the Swiss-owned MSC Magnifica cruise permission to disembark on the country’s west coast, in spite of MSC Cruises assurances that none showed any signs of respiratory or flu-like illness.