Wednesday, 11 March 2020

COVID-19: Why was the Costa Fortuna cruise ship allowed to dock in Singapore?

Costa Fortuna cruise ship docks in Singapore; some passengers immediately bussed to airport
By Aqil Haziq Mahmud and Tang See Kit, Channel NewsAsia, 10 Mar 2020

The cruise liner turned away from ports in Malaysia and Thailand due to COVID-19 concerns docked in Singapore on Tuesday morning (Mar 10), with some passengers immediately taken to Changi Airport by bus.

The Costa Fortuna berthed at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre as part of a scheduled call, after the ship was barred from stopping in Penang and Phuket.

This was despite the cruise operator stating there were no suspected COVID-19 cases on board.

The ship, however, was carrying dozens of Italian passengers.

Italy was placed on lockdown on Tuesday after it reported 97 more deaths from COVID-19, taking its toll to 463 - the largest outside of China. There are 9,172 confirmed cases in the country.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday evening, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong explained why Singapore let the ship dock here.

"The passengers were already in Singapore," Mr Wong said. "They had arrived in Singapore, and then they embarked on a cruise from Singapore with the intention to come back to Singapore.

"I don't think it would be right for us to reject the ship if it were to come back to Singapore ... so that's why we agreed to accept them.

"We took extra precautions, as we have taken for all cruise ships as well."

The minister added that there were Singaporeans aboard the Costa Fortuna. He said later in a Facebook post that two Singaporeans had been on board.

Passengers started to leave the vessel at about 9am and more than 600 had left by 12pm, the Ministry of Health (MOH), Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) and Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said in an update on Tuesday afternoon.

In another update on Tuesday night, MOH, MPA and STB said that at 11pm, all passengers of the cruise ship have been allowed to disembark.

"By midnight, all foreign passengers would have been conveyed directly to the airport for their onward flight or to their respective hotels."

All foreign passengers will also depart Singapore within the next two days.

Passengers CNA spoke to said the mood on board was generally fine, but some said they were disappointed they could not alight in Penang or Phuket. Some passengers said they had their temperature taken before disembarking.

The passengers included those from Germany, Australia, Slovenia and Romania.

Singapore authorities said on Monday that disembarking passengers would be checked by a doctor on board to ensure they were healthy.

Passengers entering Singapore would have their temperature taken, while those who had fever and/or symptoms of respiratory illness might be required to undergo a COVID-19 swab test. Passengers with no symptoms would be taken directly to the airport for onward flights, while those who have would be taken to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

On Tuesday afternoon, the three local agencies said those who had recent travel history to affected regions within the last 14 days have completed enhanced one-on-one screening by doctors licensed by MOH and have been certified fit to travel.

"These passengers had entered Singapore and boarded Costa Fortuna prior to the implementation of the travel ban and/or advisory on 4 March, 2359 hrs.

"These passengers will stay onboard the ship and will be facilitated directly to the airport for their onward flights."

The cruise centre was closed to the public on Tuesday morning, as staff and security officers screened passes and prevented reporters from taking photographs.

The first batch of passengers who left the centre at about 9am were quickly ushered to a waiting coach. The coach displayed a label showing the number of a Singapore Airlines flight departing for Bangkok at 6.35pm on Tuesday.

Subsequent batches of about 30 to 40 passengers each were also taken to waiting coaches, ushered by auxiliary officers keen on preventing them from speaking to the media.

Some of the coaches had labels showing the Crowne Plaza hotel in Changi Airport. Another coach had a label that indicated it was for members of the Dutch airline KLM.

"Nobody (on board) had fear,” a passenger from Germany said. “There’s no pain for us.”

A passenger from Romania said passengers were allowed to disembark in Langkawi, but not in Penang and Phuket.

“The cruise stopped in Phuket for four hours, then (moved off),” he said, making a hand gesture of a vehicle speeding off. “They told us that it’s closed.”

Another passenger from Australia said it was “upsetting” that her holiday was “cut short” as passengers were not allowed to disembark in Penang and Phuket.

“But it is what it is, (the virus) is worldwide,” she said, adding that it was still a “lovely” holiday.

At about 12.10pm, a bus with about 12 passengers arrived at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport. All of them are from Germany and are due to leave Singapore on Tuesday night.

Almost all foreign passengers will depart Singapore within the next two days, MOH, MPA and STB said in their joint response.

A couple said they got off the ship at about 9am and had been waiting at the cruise centre for an available coach to bring them to the hotel.

“That (took) very long and now we are waiting for our hotel rooms. We hope this will be fast so we can rest,” the man told CNA at the hotel lobby.

The couple boarded the Costa Fortuna cruise liner on Feb 25 in Singapore and said they enjoyed their two-week holiday as planned, despite not being allowed to get off the ship at Phuket and Penang.

“For me, I went to Thailand a few years ago so I know the country a little but my wife doesn’t so she is a little bit frustrated," the passenger said. "But overall, it is okay. We still had fun.”

Another two passengers from Munich – a mother and her daughter – described Costa Fortuna as a “big” and “beautiful” ship.

Both had arrived in Singapore on Feb 21 and boarded the cruise ship on Feb 25. They said they visited Pattaya, Koh Samui and Langkawi before the ship was denied entry at Phuket and Penang.

They were in high spirits when they spoke to CNA despite the long wait at the cruise centre on Tuesday morning.

“We are feeling very good. We had a good holiday for two weeks,” said the daughter, who declined to reveal her name. “What happened at Phuket and Penang was a little sad and everyone was a little frustrated, but this is the situation now so we understand.”

Singapore will continue to accept cruise ships despite higher risk of spread
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2020

Singapore will continue to accept ships that are based here, including cruise ships, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak yesterday.

He added that Singapore has had ships coming into and leaving the country since the Covid-19 outbreak began in January, just as planes have not stopped taking passengers in and out of the country.

"What's important is recognising the risk that infections may occur on ships and they can spread very easily," said Associate Professor Mak.

"What's important is that as we receive some of these ships back in Singapore, we have a high degree of vigilance to make sure that none of (the passengers) are infected, and if they are, then we must be vigilant in making sure that we're able to identify them, isolate them and control any further spread."

Prof Mak was responding to questions from The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik on whether Singapore should stop cruise ships from docking here as other countries have done.

Ms Khalik also asked during yesterday's panel discussion, which was broadcast on the newspaper's social media channels, if cruise ships pose a greater danger of infection compared to planes.

Prof Mak said ships and planes are similar in that passengers cannot leave halfway through a journey, but he added that the dynamics of social interaction are very different between the two.

"If you're on a plane, you're spending most of your time... in your seat," he said. "You may get out of that seat and walk down the aisle, but most of the time you're going to the toilet and back to your seat."

The interactions one has with fellow passengers on a plane is therefore very limited, Prof Mak said. Any spread that takes place would occur in the vicinity of the seat.

He said: "Conventionally, we talk about investigating and looking at people who might be seated in the same row as you are if you're sick, two rows in front and two rows behind you."

In contrast, most interactions on a cruise ship occur during social activities such as meals, Prof Mak noted. Ship passengers also interact with one another much more than plane passengers.

The possibility of a virus spreading is therefore potentially much higher in a ship, Prof Mak said.

Ms Khalik also asked the panel if it is safe to travel during the upcoming March and June school holidays.

Panellist Tikki Pangestu, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former director of the World Health Organisation's Research Policy and Cooperation department, said it is fine to travel to countries that have not seen much local transmission.

"I think it depends on your threshold of risk taking. Even within countries (with more cases), there are higher-risk areas. In Italy, it is the northern part of the country, and in South Korea, it's mostly Daegu, not the whole country," he said.

"So I think you just have to make, let's say, a judgment based on your own individual risk levels."

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said cutting back on non-essential travel and paying attention to which countries are seeing a rise in cases suggesting community spread is going to be the "new normal" for a while.

He added: "The next question is, should tourists come to Singapore? And the answer, we think, is yes, because we think we've got a handle on the situation."

Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, said: "We also have to watch out in terms of introduction and importation.

"But, personally, I think that Singapore is the safest place."

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