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Passengers leave coronavirus-wracked Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan after 14-day quarantine

15:23 | 19/02/2020

Relieved passengers began leaving a coronavirus-wracked cruise ship in Japan on Wednesday (Feb 19) after testing negative for the disease.

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passengers leave coronavirus wracked diamond princess cruise ship in japan after 14 day quarantine
A passenger leaves on foot after disembarking the Diamond Princess cruise ship at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama on Feb 19, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau)

The Diamond Princess has proved a fertile breeding ground for the virus with at least 542 positive cases, and Japan has faced mounting criticism for its quarantine arrangements as the passengers disperse.

The first to exit the Diamond Princess were mostly elderly passengers.

Yellow-dotted city buses, plus a dozen or so taxis, were lined up to whisk the passengers into the wider world, many of them dragging their luggage behind them.

Some of the passengers waved as they left to those still on board the ship, some of whom could be seen waving back from balconies.

The ship is the biggest cluster outside China, where new figures showed the death toll surging beyond 2,000 with more than 74,000 infected. Hundreds more cases have been reported in two dozen countries.

South Korea reported 15 new confirmed cases - increasing its total by nearly 50 per cent - including a cluster of at least 11 centred on the southern city of Daegu.

passengers leave coronavirus wracked diamond princess cruise ship in japan after 14 day quarantine
A bus carrying passengers who disembarked from the Diamond Princess cruise ship leaves the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama on Feb 19, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)

For the 500 passengers allowed to disembark after testing negative, a difficult 14-day quarantine period has come to an end after their dream cruise turned into a nightmare of fear and crushing boredom confined in many cases to small windowless cabins.

"NEGATIVE! Me, son, husband, mom and dad! Thank you Lord for protecting us... So emotional now," tweeted passenger Yardley Wong, who has been cooped up with her six-year-old son.

Those with no symptoms and a negative test received an official certificate saying they posed "no risk of infection of nCoV, as the said person has also presented no symptoms including fever at the time of infection".

But not everyone was so lucky.

British passenger David Abel, who became a minor celebrity with his upbeat video messages in the early days of the quarantine - including a cheeky request to the captain for whisky - typified the mood shift aboard.

"Mentally, it's now taking its toll. Right now, it's very hard to remain focused on anything," he said.

He later announced he and his wife Sally had tested positive.

"COMPLETELY CHAOTIC"

China announced Wednesday there were 1,749 new infections, the lowest number of new cases this month. All but 56 new cases were in the epicentre of Hubei province.

Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme, said the outbreak was "very serious" and could grow, but stressed that outside Hubei, it was "affecting a very, very tiny, tiny proportion of people".

There have been 900 cases around the world, with four deaths in France, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, and two in Hong Kong.

But in Japan, some have raised concerns about allowing people from the cruise ship to board flights home or spread out into the notoriously busy Japanese capital.

Kentaro Iwata, a professor at the infectious diseases division of Kobe University, blasted the on-ship quarantine as a "major failure, a mistake".

"It is highly likely secondary infections occurred," Iwata told AFP, saying scepticism from abroad of the quarantine was "only natural".

He later said in a video published online that he was self-quarantining after a brief visit to the ship where he raised major concerns about the procedures on board.

"It was completely chaotic," he said.

Several countries appear to have lost patience with the on-board quarantine and have prepared chartered planes to bring back their citizens.

In the first such evacuation Monday, more than 300 Americans flew home even though 14 of the passengers had tested positive.

Britain, Hong Kong (China) and Australia and some other countries and territories have vowed to repatriate people from the ship but will insist on a further 14-day quarantine on home soil.

A chartered evacuation aircraft operated by Kalitta Air waits for US passengers who have chosen to leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship, to fly back to the United States, at Haneda airport in Japan

Nathalie MacDermott, a medical expert at King's College London, recommended a further 14-day self-quarantine for those disembarking.

"Given the circumstances on board the Diamond Princess, those passengers leaving the boat should be managed in a similar manner to those individuals departing a highly affected city or region," said MacDermott.

Disembarkation is expected to take around three days as more test results become available. Anyone who has had contact with an infected passenger will have to undergo 14 more days in quarantine.

In addition, the crew will begin a new quarantine when the last passenger has disembarked.

Many of those who leave the ship will be subject to another 14 days of quarantine once they return home, such as the 200 people Australia plans to fly out on a charter flight.

“It’s best to be safe, to protect our community,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. He added that the U.S., Canada and others have put in place a similar policy and those who don’t take the charter home won’t be allowed into Australia for another 14 days.

All passengers are set to leave the Diamond Princess between Wednesday and Friday./.

VNF/AFP/Kyodo