Crew leaves Japan virus-hit ship for new quarantine

Those leaving the boat will be placed in medical observation for 14 days at government-designated dormitories

Crew members from a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship off Japan began leaving the vessel Thursday for a new quarantine on-shore after passengers left the boat, the government said, as one new death was reported in northern Hokkaido.

"Today, 240 crew members are leaving the ship and this disembarking operation will continue for a couple of days," a health ministry official told AFP.

Those leaving the boat will be placed in medical observation for 14 days at government-designated dormitories before being allowed to leave Japan, they said.

Hundreds of crew members of the Diamond Princess remained on the vessels to continue operations while Japanese officials placed thousands of passengers in a quarantine after the ship arrived at a port near Tokyo on February 3.

But the quarantine has been heavily criticised after more than 700 people on board tested positive for the virus.

Hundreds of passengers who tested negative were allowed to depart the vessel after the 14-day quarantine on-board, but several have since been diagnosed with the virus.

The health ministry has also admitted that it allowed some travellers to go home without testing them during the quarantine period.

The ship carried about 3,700 passengers and crew members when it reached the port of Yokohama.

Several nations, including the US, Australia and the Philippines, have used chartered flights to repatriate hundreds of their citizens.

Passengers and crew members who tested positive for the virus have been sent to hospitals in Japan.

A total of four people who were hospitalised after being taken off the ship have died.

Several government officials working on the ship have themselves contracted the infection, but authorities have defended a policy of not uniformly testing those working on the vessel, arguing that medical experts have the skills to avoid infections.

Crew who show no symptoms will stay at National Tax College dormitories in Saitama, near Tokyo, for observation.

Japan's government used the dorms to conduct a 14-day quarantine of some Japanese nationals who evacuated from Wuhan and its surrounding areas of China, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki announced on Thursday a man in his 80s infected with the virus has died, bringing the death toll outside the ship to four.

Many public elementary schools and junior high schools in Hokkaido were closed as the governor has requested the public schools to be closed for about a week.

The city of Osaka also said it will close its kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools from Saturday for two weeks, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Aside from the cruise ship, Japan has seen at least 186 cases of infections among the general population.