Pressure grows on UK to rescue citizens from coronavirus-stricken ship

Pressure is growing on the British government to airlift citizens stranded on a cruise ship stricken by coronavirus, after a Chinese tourist in France became the first person to die from the disease in Europe.

The US announced late on Friday that it would be evacuating more than 400 nationals from the quarantined ship, which has had nearly 300 confirmed coronavirus cases, and British travellers called on their government to do the same.

“I am very disillusioned with the UK,” said David Abel, who has been live-streaming videos from his cabin in the stricken ship, currently moored off Yokohama. He has been calling on the government – and even billionaire Richard Branson – to rescue him, his wife, Sally, and other British citizens from the Diamond Princess liner.

“Its wonderful how the Americans are going to come in two aeroplanes and take them home,” he said after the US decision was announced, but added that he held out little hope of a similar rescue. “I’ve now given up on anybody in the UK, quite frankly,” he said.

In the UK, all but one of the nine patients being treated for coronavirus have been released from hospital after recovering from the disease, the NHS said. Ninety-four people airlifted from Wuhan two weeks ago have been released from quarantine after clearing all tests for the virus.

Worldwide, the disease has infected more than 67,000 people and killed more than 1,500, although only four of those deaths have been outside mainland China – in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and now France.

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The man who died in Paris, from a lung infection caused by Covid-19, was an 80-year-old tourist. He arrived in France on 16 January and was taken to a hospital isolation unit on 25 January. His daughter also fell ill, but is expected to recover.

The first case in Africa was reported on Friday, in Egypt, although no further details were immediately available. Before the case was announced, health authorities across the continent – where many countries have strong economic and political ties with China – had been bracing for the arrival of the disease, setting up testing centres and drawing up treatment plans.

As elsewhere in the world, there have been fears that health systems might be overwhelmed if there was a mass outbreak on the scale seen in the Chinese city of Wuhan, at the centre of the crisis.

Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “There have been concerns about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak when it arrives in Africa. Therefore, it is reassuring that there has been some rapid contact tracing and all contacts have tested negative. This gives confidence that this might be an isolated case with minimal transmission.”

The head of the World Health Organization said on Saturday it was impossible to tell where the epidemic would spread. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a security conference in Germany that despite encouraging efforts by China, he was concerned about the increasing number of cases.

The rate of new infections had appeared to be slowing earlier this week, but changes in the way China counts cases led to a significant leap in the number of patients, and has confused officials trying to track the disease.

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Inside China, the government has urged people to start returning to work, as weeks of shutdown and fear created by the outbreak take a heavy toll on the economy. But controls have been stepped up to halt the spread of the disease, with anyone traveling to the capital, Beijing, required to spend 14 days isolated in self-quarantine after arrival.

President Xi Jinping has called for more policing to stop hoarding, and more controls on online discussion.

While most cases are inside China, a growing number of infections – and some deaths – beyond its borders have added to panic about how easily the disease can spread. Among recently diagnosed cases was an American passenger travelling on a cruise ship that had no reported sickness on board at the time, but was turned away from docking in five countries before passengers were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia.

An 83-year-old woman tested positive in Malaysia, where she had flown along with 144 others from the ship on Friday. The woman’s husband tested negative for the disease, Malaysia’s health ministry said.

Cruise ships became a focus for concern after the rapid spread of the disease on the Diamond Princess. Its passengers have been isolated in their rooms since 3 February, after a man who had disembarked in Hong Kong days earlier was diagnosed with the virus. The cruise liner’s quarantine is due to end on Wednesday, but with new cases being discovered regularly, there have been questions about whether it could be extended.

Washington’s offer to take citizens home came with a warning that if they did not accept it, they would not be able to go home “for a period of time”.

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The US planes will arrive on Sunday, and passengers will be screened before they can board. Anyone with symptoms will be treated in Japan; the rest will face another 14 days’ quarantine after they return home.


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