Scott Morrison has confirmed 200 Australians to be evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship will not be sent to Christmas Island for quarantine, with Darwin instead the most likely destination.
The Diamond Princess, which is moored in Yokohama, is the epicentre of the biggest outbreak of the coronavirus outside of China.
Some 355 of its passengers who have tested positive, including 24 Australians.
Late on Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister announced plans for a Qantas flight to go to Japan on Wednesday to retrieve the 200 Australians. The cruise ship’s passengers will be repatriated to Australia for quarantine – or will be denied access to the country for at least two weeks.
“What we have agreed to do today is to take action to provide direct assistance to those who are on that vessel and we are fighting for an assistant departure flight from Japan to Australia on this Wednesday,” Mr Morrison said.
“For those more than 200 Australians who will be returning to Australia, we are going to have to require a further 14-day quarantine period to be put in place on their return to Darwin, where they will be accommodated at the Howard Springs facility.
“I understand that those who were onboard will feel very frustrated about this, as well as their family members … indeed I am very frustrated about it. But, our first responsibility is is that we have to protect the health and safety of Australians in Australia today.”
Mr Morrison said the Christmas Island detention centre was not fit to hold the cruise ship evacuees.
“There are quite specific needs that we wouldn’t be able to accommodate at Christmas Island for the more elderly group of people who are associated with [the Diamond Princess],” he said.
“That’s not an option we’re considering for this operation and we don’t have any other operations envisaged at this time.”
The first group of hundreds of Australians quarantined on Christmas Island was released on Monday. None of those quarantined on Christmas Island, or from a second group taken to Darwin, have tested positive for the virus.
The first of two chartered planes carrying citizens from Christmas Island who have been in quarantine has arrived in Port Hedland.
The people onboard will not disembark until their final destination.
— Sam Jones (@sam_jones444) February 17, 2020
By early Monday, all American citizens on board the Diamond Princess had disembarked to take charter flights out of Japan.
Passengers wearing masks could be seen waving through the windows of buses parked near the ship.
Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.
Here's the Departure of the Americans pic.twitter.com/ndWXkTCG7O
— Matthew Smith (@mjswhitebread) February 16, 2020
A senior Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) officer was to board the cruise ship on Monday to assess conditions in preparation for evacuating the Aussies on board.
The Qantas charter flight will transport passengers who have not tested positive to coronavirus to Darwin. They will be quarantined in the workers’ camp for another fortnight and kept under medical supervision.
The cruise ship remains in quarantine in Yokohama with Australians on board advised evacuation was imminent.
“You may have already seen the news that the US government is planning to assist US passengers on the Diamond Princess to return to the United States in the coming days,” an email said.
“We understand the US Embassy will send out information to US passengers on the ship about their plans shortly.”
“The Australian government is also examining options to assist Australians on board the ship. We will contact you again as soon as any decision is taken.
“We understand this is a very stressful situation for you on the ship. Please be assured we are working hard to assist all Australian passengers and your welfare is our paramount concern.”
At home, a risk assessment of every cruise ship arrival into Sydney is being conducted under the supervision of NSW’s chief human biosecurity officer and the chief health officer.
Meanwhile, China’s ambassador in Australia, Chen Jingye, has criticised the ongoing ban on Chinese visitors coming to Australia as “out of proportion”.
“This is controllable. This is curable,” he says.
“We have every confidence and capacities to win against the epidemic.”