Fourteen US citizens who were evacuated from a quarantined cruise ship have been flown home – despite being found to have COVID-19 on the way to the airport.
Two charter flights carrying some of the 380 Americans on board the Diamond Princess ship moored at Yokohama Port near Tokyo had left Japan for America on Sunday, the US State Department said.
Passengers were tested for the virus 2-3 days before being allowed off the ship, but once they had begun heading to the airport, officials received notice that 14 of them tested positive – despite being found “fit to fly”.
Passengers who were known to have tested positive for the virus before the leaving the ship were told they would not be able to board the flight back to the US, but exceptions were made for those already heading to the airport.
Once on board the flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, those who had tested positive were moved to the back of the plane in a “specialised containment area” to be isolated – even thought they did not display any symptoms.
The flights appear to have landed at US airforce bases, and the repatriated passengers will now have to spend another two weeks in quarantine at a military facility.
Of the 3,500 people on board the ship, 369 have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
One US couple, Cheryl and Paul Molesky, filmed themselves boarding the flight after being kept inside their cabin for 12 days.
“Well we’re exhausted but we’re on the plane and that’s a good feeling,” Mrs Molesky said.
Her husband added they had spent “five hours on the bus, waiting to get off the bus” before boarding the flight.
Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy are also planning similar repatriation flights.
Meanwhile, 78 Britons held on the ship have accused the UK government of “forgetting” about them.
In a video message, British passenger David Abel said: “Every country except the UK has become involved, and that is really wonderful for the people on board the ship.
“Every country except for the United Kingdom.
“It feels that we’ve been forgotten. That you don’t really care about us, and that you’re actually not wanting us to come home.”
The latest coronavirus developments:
- Chinese authorities have said there were 2,048 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 105 new deaths on Sunday in mainland China.
- Taiwan has reported its first death from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths outside mainland China to five.
- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has convened a meeting of experts to discuss how the virus can be contained in his country, after more than a dozens cases emerged in recent days without any obvious link to China.
- China’s President Xi has published a speech in Chinese official media in which he said that he had led the response to the outbreak from early in the crisis.
Sky News understands that the UK government is considering a repatriation flight.
In an email to UK passengers, the British embassy in Tokyo asks those on board to give an “indication” as to whether they would be interested in flying back to the UK.
However, the embassy is clear that a flight is only being looked into at the moment, and it is not a certainty.
Other passengers fear they may be kept in quarantine beyond the initial 19 February deadline, after Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said the quarantine may be extended for guests who had close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
Ms Swartz said: “We also now understand the Japanese may handle a select group of guests differently, anyone who had close contact with a person who tested positive – such as a cabin mate – may have to restart their quarantine from the date their close contact ended.”
It comes as the death toll from COVID-19 hit more than 1,773, according to the Johns Hoskins Centre for Systems Science and Engineering.
So far there have been more than 71,000 suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19, with many of the cases concentrated in mainland China.