Pressure grows to rescue Britons on liner stricken by coronavirus

Emma Graham-Harrison
Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Pressure is growing on the British government to airlift UK citizens stranded on a cruise ship stricken by coronavirus, as a Chinese tourist in France yesterday became the first person to die from the disease in Europe.

The US announced late on Friday that it would be evacuating more than 400 of its nationals from the quarantined ship, the Diamond Princess, which has reported nearly 300 confirmed Covid-19 cases, and British travellers called on their government to do the same.

“I am very disillusioned with the UK,” said David Abel, who has been livestreaming from the stricken ship, which has been held in the Japanese port of Yokohama since 3 February. He has called on the government – and even the billionaire Richard Branson – to rescue him, his wife Sally, and other British citizens.

“It’s wonderful how the Americans are going to come in two aeroplanes and take them home,” he said after the US decision was announced, but added he had little hope of a similar rescue. “I’ve now given up on anybody in the UK, quite frankly.”

On Sunday the Japanese health ministry confirmed that the number of infected passengers on the ship had risen by 70 to 355.

Asked if the UK was planning an evacuation, a Foreign Office spokesperson said that officials were “working around the clock to ensure the welfare of British nationals on board”.

In the UK, all but one of the nine patients being treated for coronavirus have been released from hospital after recovering from the disease, the NHS said. Ninety-four people airlifted from Wuhan two weeks ago have been released from quarantine after clearing all tests.

Worldwide, the disease has infected more than 69,000 people and killed more than 1,660, although only four deaths have occurred outside mainland China – in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and now France.

The man who died in Paris from a lung infection caused by Covid-19 was an 80-year-old tourist. He arrived in France on 16 January, and was taken to a hospital isolation unit on 25 January. His daughter also fell ill but is expected to recover.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, said it was impossible to tell where the virus would spread. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Reuters

The first case in Africa was reported on Friday, in Egypt, with no further details immediately available. Before the case was announced, health authorities across the continent – where many countries have strong economic and political ties with China – had been bracing for the arrival of the disease, setting up testing centres and drawing up treatment plans.

As elsewhere in the world, there have been fears that health systems might be overwhelmed if there were a mass outbreak on the scale seen in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the centre of the crisis.

“There have been concerns about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak when it arrives in Africa,” said Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. “Therefore, it is reassuring that there has been some rapid contact-tracing [in Egypt] and all contacts have tested negative. This gives confidence that this might be an isolated case with minimal transmission.”

The head of the World Health Organization said on Saturday that it was impossible to tell where the epidemic would spread. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the Munich security conference in Germany that, despite encouraging efforts by China, he was concerned about the increasing number of cases.

The rate of new infections had appeared to be slowing last week, but changes in the way China counts cases led to a significant leap in the number of patients and has confused international researchers trying to track the disease.

Inside China, the government has urged people to start returning to work, as weeks of shutdown and fear have taken a heavy toll on the economy. But controls have been stepped up to halt the spread of the disease, with anyone travelling to the capital Beijing required to spend 14 days in self-quarantine after arrival.

President Xi Jinping has called for more policing to stop hoarding, and more controls of online discussions about the outbreak.

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While most cases are inside China, the growing numbers of infections – and some deaths – beyond its borders have added to panic about how easily the disease spreads.

Among recently diagnosed cases was an American passenger traveling on a cruise ship that became notorious because, although it had no reported sickness on board at the time, it had been turned away from ports in five countries before passengers were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia.

The 83-year-old female holidaymaker tested positive in Malaysia, where she had flown along with 144 others from the ship on Friday. The woman’s husband tested negative for the disease, Malaysia’s health ministry added.

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Cruise ships became a focus for concern after the rapid spread of the disease on the Diamond Princess. Its passengers have been isolated in their rooms since 3 February after a man who had disembarked in Hong Kong days earlier was diagnosed with the virus.
The cruise liner’s quarantine is set to end on Wednesday, but with new cases being discovered regularly there have been questions about whether that could be extended.

The US’s offer to take citizens home came with a warning that if they did not take it up, they would not be able to go home “for a period of time”.

The American planes will arrive on Sunday, and US passengers will be screened before they can board. Anyone with symptoms will be treated in Japan; the rest will face another 14 days’ quarantine when they return home.