Tsai apologizes for COVID-19 cluster infection on naval ship

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on Wednesday apologized for the handling of a COVID-19 cluster on board a naval ship which has so far left 28 people infected with the virus, saying that as commander-in-chief, she holds ultimate responsibility for the military.

In an address at the Presidential Office Building, Tsai acknowledged that the COVID-19 outbreak on the Panshi fast combat ship has drawn a great deal of attention from the public.

As commander-in-chief, “the military’s business is my business,” she said.

Although the military has done much to bolster Taiwan’s epidemic prevention efforts, it made many errors in its handling of the Panshi case, Tsai continued, adding that she apologized that those errors had caused a public health risk.

Tsai said she had asked the military to rectify the situation as quickly as possible, adding that the military’s identification on Tuesday night of four areas of negligence in its handling of the case represented only the beginning of a fuller investigation into the matter.

“We will not attempt to evade responsibility for this,” she said.

Tsai said the country remains in a state of readiness against the virus, but also in terms of national security. Citing recent movements by the Chinese military, she said Taiwan’s armed forces will continue to conduct essential training and maintain a standard level of combat-readiness.

Tsai was responding to a growing controversy over the Panshi, which as part of a three-ship flotilla participated in a training mission in Palau from March 12-15.

The flotilla returned to its home port of Zuoying in southern Taiwan on April 9, but the crew were not allowed to disembark until April 15 because of an epidemic prevention requirement that ships must have visited their last port of call 30 days before those on board can enter Taiwan.

After Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced on Saturday and Sunday that 24 people on board the Panshi had been infected with COVID-19 (the number has since risen to 28), suspicions were raised that the military failed to report possible cases of the disease on board the ship.

On Monday, the military said it had reviewed the ship’s medical records, which showed that 70 crew members made 71 medical visits, with five having a fever.

However, that night it said a second review of the ship’s medical records found that 148 crew sought medical treatment 226 times, including 10 visits for upper respiratory symptoms.

On Tuesday evening, Defense Minister Yen De-fa (嚴德發) announced the removal of two Navy admirals from their posts pending further investigation into the military’s handling of the incident, and said he was willing to accept any form of punishment from Tsai, including handing in his resignation.

Following her speech Wednesday, Tsai was asked to address not only the government’s response to the incident, but also the overall purpose of the training mission, given the clear risks posed by the global spread of COVID-19.

Some in the media have speculated that the flotilla must have made other stops, since it did not return to port in Zuoying until April 9.

In response to a reporter’s question on the subject, Tsai said she could not reveal the flotilla’s exact mission, but said “If you’re asking me whether there were other destinations besides Palau, the answer is ‘no’.”

Separately, she was asked to respond to Yen’s assertion on Tuesday that he approved the mission on Feb. 20 and subsequently reported it to Tsai, whom he said “respected” the decision.

Tsai confirmed that she had been informed of the mission during a routine report from the defense ministry, but minimized her role in the military’s planning process.

“The decision was already made — the president should respect it,” she said.