The Foreign Office is attempting to rescue more than 70 British guests and crew trapped onboard a Princess Cruises ship quarantined off the coast of Japan amid the coronavirus crisis.
The FCO confirmed, during the early hours of Tuesday (18 February) morning, it was “working to organise” a flight back to the UK for all the British nationals onboard Diamond Princess.
The ship was quarantined in the port of Yokohama more than a fortnight ago after a guest tested positive for the infection, which has quickly spread across much of China claiming in excess of 1,000 lives.
More than 600 people onboard Diamond Princess have now tested positive for the virus, including British couple David and Sally Abel, who have been using Facebook and social media to document their life onboard the stricken ship.
The couple criticised the government’s lack of intervention in a fresh video message issued at the weekend, and called personally on Virgin Atlantic owner Richard Branson to arrange a repatriation flight for British guests.
Branson responded to the Abels’ plea in a tweet at the weekend, in which he said: “Virgin Atlantic does not fly to Japan, but we are in discussions with the UK government and seeing if there is anything we can do to help.”
The official quarantine enforced by Japanese medical authorities is due to end on Wednesday (19 February), and a number of more vulnerable guests have already been given the option to complete their quarantine on land.
However, the Abels and the dozens of other British guests and crew onboard Diamond Princess will likely face a further 14-day period of quarantine when they eventually return to the UK at a specialist medical facility. It is also unclear at this stage whether they will be allowed to leave the ship on Wednesday.
The ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it was placed under quarantine at the start of the month. Princess on Tuesday confirmed another 169 new positive cases had been identified onboard the ship over the past 48 hours, taking the tally from 451 past 600 and making the outbreak onboard Diamond Princess the largest outside of China.
In a fresh travel bulletin, the FCO said: “There has been a confirmed outbreak of coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. This ship is currently in quarantine in Yokohama. If you’re onboard, follow the advice of the authorities leading the response.
“We are working to organise a flight back to the UK for British nationals on the Diamond Princess as soon as possible. Our staff are contacting British nationals on board to make the necessary arrangements. We urge all those who have not yet responded to get in touch immediately.”
It comes though after several countries have already taken steps to repatriate their citizens onboard the ship; the US has brought home more than 300 people, while Australian officials have been making arrangements to bring home their guests.
In a new video statement posted on Tuesday morning, Princess Cruises executive vice-president Rai Caluori said the line had more than 30 individuals on the ground in Japan “solely dedicated” to supporting guests and crew admitted to hospital as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
He confirmed guests were beginning to disembark “as part of their individual country’s responses” to the crisis, adding Princess would remain in full contact with them and offer travel support once any quarantine requirements in their home country are complete.
Back in the UK, a Heathrow airport hotel has been block booked until March and designated a coronavirus quarantine centre, it has been reported.
Princess has also been forced to drastically cut Sapphire Princess’s planned 2020 voyages owing to the coronavirus outbreak, with the ship’s entire Asia and Australasia programme through October cancelled. The ship will be redeployed six months earlier than planned to Australia where it will sail 44 new cruises from five cities.