By Byron Kaye and Melanie Burton
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Health officials in Australia's most populous state made "unjustifiable" and "inexcusable" mistakes which allowed cruise ship passengers with COVID-19 to disembark in central Sydney, an inquiry said on Friday.
The Carnival Corp-owned Ruby Princess was for a time Australia's biggest single source of infection, with more than 600 cases and over 20 deaths directly linked to those passengers.
Some 2,700 passengers, 120 of whom were feeling unwell, were allowed to leave the ship on March 19, helping spread the virus across the country and internationally.
New South Wales Health failed to ensure the ship knew of heightened screening for the virus or ensure that sick passengers were isolated in their cabins, a report by the inquiry concluded.
It also failed get quick test results for unwell passengers before they disembarked.
"The delay in obtaining test results for the swabs taken from the Ruby Princess on the morning of 19 March is inexcusable. Those swabs should have been tested immediately," the inquiry, led by high-profile lawyer Bret Walker, said in the report.
The "decision to assess the risk as 'low risk', meaning in effect 'do nothing', is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable," it added.
NSW Health directed media inquiries to the state premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who said in a statement she would read the report over the weekend before responding.
The 315-page report did not make formal recommendations and stopped short of calling for government resignations.
Carnival Corp said the report confirmed that none of its employees misled Australian authorities, which was "of great importance to us because it goes to the integrity of our people".
"In our more than 20 years in Australia, we have always sought to cooperate honestly and professionally with officials in accordance with the regulatory environment," Jan Swartz, president of Carnival's Princess Cruises unit, said in a statement.
The Ruby Princess had completed a Sydney-New Zealand round trip. Around two thirds of the passengers were Australian.
The report was published as neighbouring Victoria state, now home to Australia's biggest outbreak and which has put its capital under a hard lockdown, recorded 14 more deaths on Friday - one a man in his 20s, the country's youngest fatality so far.
The state logged 372 new cases, a jump of nearly 100 from the previous day which was the lowest in more than three weeks. But that is still far off the peak of 725 new cases seen on Aug. 5.
"We will see a levelling off of hospitalisations for community cases in the next couple of weeks and the same for deaths," Victoria Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told a media briefing.
Australia's coronavirus tally stands at 22,739 infections and 375 deaths, most of them in Victoria. Other states have seen new case numbers in the low single digits or have had none. New South Wales reported just nine new cases on Friday.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye, Melanie Burton and Renju Jose; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)