News National US announces plans to airlift Americans from cruise ship as virus infections soar

US announces plans to airlift Americans from cruise ship as virus infections soar

Disinfecting Beijing streets
Beijing, China. Photo: AAP
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Europe has recorded its first coronavirus death, as an Australian medical expert arrives in Japan to join an international investigation team gathering information about the coronavirus spread among passengers quarantined on board the Diamond Princess.

While the Morrison government has not committed to evacuation the 200-odd Australians aboard the cruise ship, the Prime Minister is considering a plane to “rescue” the at-risk passengers. Among the vulnerable would be the elderly, and they’d be brought home to be quarantined for 14 days.

The recently arrived medical expert will advise the government whether or not this is the best path forward.

US citizens on the cruise ship who are confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus will not be taken back to the United States on a planned charter flight after all, a Japanese government official said.

The US said earlier it would send an aircraft to Japan to bring back all US passengers. The Diamond Princess is the most concentrated outbreak of coronavirus infections outside China.

Passengers that test clear of the disease will begin to be evacuated on Sunday evening, and undergo a further 14 days of quarantine when they arrive back on home turf. Anyone who chooses to stay won’t be able to return to the States for “a period of time”.

There are 3700 people on board the ship, and 285 confirmed cases of the disease.

Reports also began to emerge early on Sunday that Malaysia has confirmed the first case of the virus stemming from the Westerdam cruise ship, which was refused entry into more than a dozen countries before finally docking and disembarking in Cambodia.

An 83-year-old US citizen has tested positive for the disease, CNN is reporting, and first displayed symptoms when she arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Cambodia.

The news comes as the total number infected by the virus in China alone rose to more than 66,000 on Saturday, with the number of deaths passing 1500.

A total of 1700 Chinese health workers who have been infected, with six deaths.

And the virus, whose global spread appears to be accelerating, claimed the life of an 80-year-old Chinese man who succumbed to the virus in a Paris hospital. He was one of 11 identified cases in France.

Until the death in France, there had been only three deaths outside China, with one in Japan, one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.

Africa recorded its first case of the virus on Friday – a man in Egypt.

The Australian government last week extended the two-week travel ban from mainland China to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 for another seven days this week.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says keeping Australians safe from the virus is “absolutely paramount”, but also wants the travel ban eased as the “savage blow” to the economy and tourism industry hits home.

“The ban on passenger air travel also impacts on a range of other industries that depend on frequent air movements to shift goods, including perishable products,” Australian Chamber – Tourism Executive chair John Hart said in a statement.

“Tourism and trade would greatly benefit from even a partial lifting of the ban from provinces in China that present a much lower risk to Australians.”

Chinese authorities meanwhile are stepping up their efforts to curtail the spread of the virus, which kills about 2 per cent of those it infects.

People returning to Beijing from extended holidays have been ordered to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine – an edict that came as hard-hit Hubei province reported more than 2400 new cases and deserted streets made major cities resemble ghost towns.

Normally flooded with traffic, this roundabout in central Shanghai is all but deserted. Photo: ABC

State newspaper Beijing Daily said anyone who disobeys would be punished, but it was not immediately clear how that would be enforced or whether the restrictions would apply to non-residents and foreigners arriving from abroad.

“From now on, all those who have returned to Beijing should stay at home or submit to group observation for 14 days after arriving,” read the notice from Beijing’s virus prevention working group cited by the Beijing Daily.

Anthony Albanese has conferred with the government about the potential risk posed by container ships from China. Photo: AAP

The Maritime Unions of Australia is concerned its members are being put at risk by the arrival of container vessels from mainland China, which it says in some cases are docking in breach of the travel ban.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has raised this issue with the government and the chief medical officer, and has been assured they are aware of the situation.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure the health of Australians is the number one priority,” Mr Albanese told reporters in Perth.

No quarantined Australians at Christmas Island and Darwin have tested positive for the virus, with the first group of evacuees due to return home on Monday.

The Australian Border Force is making arrangements to transfer those quarantined on Christmas Island once they have been medically cleared.

Of the 15 coronavirus cases in Australia, six have been cleared and the remaining nine are all stable.

-with AAP