At least 800 people will be quarantined on Rottnest Island in Western Australia when a cruise ship carrying 1,500 people arrives in Fremantle on Friday.
But the details of their quarantine – including how those people will be fed, where they will be housed and what will happen to the island’s 100 permanent residents – are yet to be finalised.
The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, said on Wednesday that he would be “exercising the Rottnest option” for Australian citizens and residents aboard the Vasco da Gama, which was due to arrive in Fremantle on Friday.
It follows the disastrous management in New South Wales of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, from which at least 133 people have tested positive for Covid-19 and one person has died since it docked and allowed 2,700 passengers to disembark in Sydney on 19 March.
“We have seen what has happened in Sydney Harbour,” McGowan told reporters in Perth on Wednesday. “It was a complete and utter disaster. I will not allow that to happen in WA. There are no circumstances where we will allow passengers or crew to wander the streets in our state.”
The only exception, he said, would be a life-threatening emergency.
The Vasco da Gama was meant to terminate its cruise in Fremantle and its 950 passengers previously had permission to disembark.
Instead, McGowan said, the 800 Australians onboard, including 250 people from WA, will be made to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine period on Rottnest Island in an effort to prevent a potential coronavirus outbreak from spreading to the general population.
Non-Australians on board – about 150 passengers and 550 crew members – will be made to remain on the ship until they can be flown home. About 109 passengers are from New Zealand and 33 from the United Kingdom. McGowan said a plan was being “worked up with the New Zealand government to get those passengers back home as safely as possible”.
No passengers have tested positive for Covid-19 and there are no reports of illness on board.
The ship’s operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages Australia, said it was disappointed it was not told that its docking permission had been rescinded before McGowan announced it to the media.
The company’s managing director, Dean Brazier, told the ABC the ship had been at sea for 13 days straight and it was disappointing passengers would be asked to quarantine for a further 14 days.
Western Australia has taken a hard line against cruise ships. On Tuesday police and border force agencies monitored another cruise ship, the Magnifica, as it refuelled in Fremantle to ensure no one disembarked. That ship is currently anchored off the WA coast, attempting to find a port.
Another cruise ship, the Artana, was due to refuel in Fremantle on Tuesday night. One person, who has since left the ship, tested positive to Covid-19 and 25 other people have reported respiratory symptoms.
The Artana, with 1,300 people on board, has also been asked to remain at anchor off the coast, McGowan said.
The WA government announced on Sunday that it would use Rottnest Island, which has a brutal history as a colonial prison for Aboriginal people, for quarantine purposes.
All visitors to the island were told to leave this week, and McGowan said the government had “made arrangements for accommodation, catering and security” of people under quarantine.
According to the Rottnest Island Authority there are 292 rental accommodation units on the island, as well as some dormitory rooms. The island is also usually home to about 100 permanent human residents and 10,000 quokkas.
“We are exercising the Rottnest option now for two reasons,” McGowan said. “One, to protect the safety of the Australian passengers; and two, to protect the West Australian community from any possible infection transmission from this cruise ship.”
McGowan said the Vasco da Gama would be required to sit offshore at anchor until transport for passengers could be arranged. It has been told by authorities in Dubai that it will not be able to return to port there while transport in and out of the United Arab Emirates is locked down.