SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Two cruise ships off the coast of Western Australia have been told to "immediately" leave Australian waters, after the country’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus was traced to a cruise liner that docked in Sydney Harbour last week.
Cruise ships have become a flash point for the epidemic in Australia after 147 of 2,700 passengers who disembarked from the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney later tested positive for Covid-19.
The outbreak from the Ruby Princess represents the country’s worst cluster of the virus, and has sparked anger over why passengers, more than a dozen showing flu-like symptoms, were cleared to disembark without basic health checks.
State authorities have clashed with the central government over the handling of the issue, adding to tensions over matters including virus testing and school closures as the number of cases rapidly rises to nearly 2,800, with 12 dead.
On Thursday, seven of 800 foreign passengers on board the German-operated MV Artania tested positive for Covid-19, and two more were unwell.
West Australian premier Mark McGowan said no one would be permitted to disembark the Artania unless there was a "life threatening emergency".
"This ship needs to leave immediately,” he said, "Our position is clear, we are not going to have a Sydney Harbour fiasco on our watch."
The premier said he discussing with federal authorities whether ill passengers could be air-lifted to a military base or similar for treatment.
A second cruise ship, the MSC Magnifica, which refueled in Perth this week, is currently in Western Australian waters after being refused entry in Dubai.
The premier said no passengers on board were ill and arrangements were being made for it to travel to Europe or another port.
A spokeswoman for MSC Cruises which owns the Magnifica declined to comment on where the vessel would go.
Western Australia is preparing Rottnest island, a former prison island turned tourist attraction, to quarantine some of the 800 Australians on board a third cruise ship, the British-operated Vasco de Gama.
The Vasco da Gama was scheduled to dock in Perth on Friday morning but will instead arrive on Monday to allow time for arrangements to be made on Rottnest island.
More than 100 other passengers, from Britain and New Zealand will be quarantined on the ship.
Ship owner Britain’s Cruise & Maritime Voyages said it was carrying no unwell passengers or staff.
With the number of Covid-19 cases rising quickly, Australia is poised for stricter lockdowns as the shock from the global pandemic hits the economy hard.
Long queues have continued to spool around welfare offices across the country, while more than a quarter of a million Australians registered for financial help on Wednesday, according to the government services minister.
The closure of non-essential services such as bars, restaurants, gyms and cinemas, has left hundreds of thousands instantly unemployed.
Flight Centre on Thursday said a third of its 20,000 strong workforce faced temporary or permanent redundancy, while retail tycoon Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments Ltd temporarily closed all stores in Australia.