About 200 Australians trapped inside the coronavirus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship are about to be evacuated to a site in Darwin for a two-week isolation period.
The evacuees, including some New Zealanders, will board a Qantas Boeing 747 that will leave Tokyo’s Haneda Airport overnight, heading for a quarantine facility near Darwin.
By tomorrow morning, they will finally be able to inhale fresh air and feel the Northern Territory wind on their faces after spending two weeks inside stuffy cabins.
But not all the Australians on board have taken up the federal government’s offer to be evacuated.
Fifteen have chosen to remain on the cruise ship to stay near family who have contracted the potentially deadly disease.
The 36 Australians who caught the coronavirus, now called Covid-19, are receiving medical care in Japan.
The timing is unlucky for Sunshine Coast man Paul Williamson, who has been in quarantine on the cruise ship and has recently tested positive for Covid-19.
The former school principal will be taken to a hospital and separated from his wife Coralie.
The couple told the ABC they had been extremely careful during quarantine.
They said they declined invitations to get fresh air on the deck with other passengers to try and limit their exposure to the virus, choosing to use their private balcony instead.
Those who chose to stay behind will be banned from entering Australia for two weeks as a precaution.
For the passengers preparing to be evacuated, the end to a torturous 14 days in lockdown has finally arrived.
But the ordeal won’t be quite over, with the next 24 hours bound to be a long and painful journey.
If they passed the latest health check, the passengers would have received “approval of disembarkation” notices by Japanese quarantine officials, which grant them permission to enter Japan.
— quarantinedondiamondprincess (@quarantinedond1) February 18, 2020
Wearing special wristbands, the passengers will disembark at Yokohama Port and begin a four-and-a-half hour bus ride to Haneda Airport.
When they board the plane around midnight, meals will be waiting for them at their seats.
Flight attendants will not make direct contact with evacuees, and Qantas staff will remain upstairs.
After they have touched down in Darwin, the passengers will be transported to the former Inpex workers’ village in Howard Springs where they will spend an extra two weeks in lockdown.
Cabin crew of the Qantas flight will also be subjected to two weeks of home quarantine after returning from the rescue mission.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood the frustration of people who had been stuck on the ship.
“We want to get them home to their families as soon as possible,” Mr Morrison said.
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the older evacuees will have continuous access to medical assistance.
“I can be absolutely confident that they will be very well looked after here, in much better facilities than being in a tiny cabin on a cruise ship,” Mr Murphy told reporters in Darwin.
The cruise ship evacuees will be kept separate from hundreds of people already in isolation at the facility, who were evacuated from Wuhan, the Chinese epicentre of the virus.
Professor Murphy has sought to alleviate concerns in the Darwin community, saying they will be completely protected from the disease.
Meanwhile, the 36 evacuees remaining on Christmas Island left on Wednesday, after most of the quarantined group returned to the mainland on Monday.
The facility will be readied for the possibility of more Australians facing the two-week isolation period.
Island administrator Natasha Griggs tweeted her thanks to those involved in the operation.
“Job well done! I couldn’t be a more prouder Australian,” she wrote.
The last 36 Wuhan evacuees on #Christmasisland are now on their way home . So many people involved in this operation – thanks to you all. Job well done!👏
I couldn’t be a more prouder Australian 😊@AusBorderForce @ScottMorrisonMP @PeterDutton_MP @AustralianArmy @GregHuntMP pic.twitter.com/1arU1m5MbA
— Natasha Griggs (@NatashaGriggsNT) February 19, 2020
There have been 15 cases of the virus in Australia, with eight people now recovered and the rest in a stable condition.
There are now more than 72,000 cases worldwide, with 1868 reported deaths.