Hundreds of relieved passengers finally disembarked a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship in Japan Wednesday after testing negative for the disease that has now claimed more than 2,000 lives in China and spread panic worldwide.
With 542 positive cases, the Diamond Princess is easily the biggest cluster outside China, and Japan has faced mounting criticism for its quarantine arrangements as the passengers disperse into the wider world.
"I'm relieved... I want to take a good rest," said a 77-year-old Japanese passenger, who declined to give his name. He said he would be boarding Japan's famously crowded railway system home.
A fleet of yellow-dotted city buses, plus a dozen or so taxis, whisked away the passengers, many of whom dragged their luggage behind them and waved to former ship-mates on balconies as they disembarked.
Fresh figures from China showed the death toll surging beyond 2,000 with more than 74,000 infected, although the rate of new cases continued to slow in recent days.
For the 500 passengers disembarking the Diamond Princess 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 boredom confined in many cases to small windowless cabins.
"Our last deep gratitude to the crews and captain for such an amazing care... during the epic crisis... we can't wait to see you on board again," tweeted passenger Yardley Wong, who left after 14 days cooped in a small cabin with her six-year-old son.
Australians on ship waiting to leave
Close to 200 Australians have packed their bags and are undergoing coronavirus tests as they prepare to finally leave an infected cruise ship in Japan.
Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said 180 Australians would be evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, while 15 had chosen to stay in Japan to be near family who have contracted the deadly disease.
The Qantas flight is due to depart Japan in the early hours of Thursday morning for Darwin, where they will then be taken to a former workers' camp near the city.
"No passengers will board the plane if they have any symptoms of the coronavirus or test positive, obviously, to the coronavirus," Mr Tudge said in Sydney on Wednesday.
Mr Tudge also confirmed there are 36 confirmed cases of the virus among Australian passengers.
An Australian passenger said Australians had been told they would be pre-screened starting on Wednesday morning and taken to Tokyo's Haneda airport in the evening for an expected departure early on Thursday.
"They told us to pack warm weather clothes for the two weeks in Darwin but who will have that after a cruise in the Japanese winter," passenger Vicki Presland told Reuters.
A captain's announcement on the liner said that Hong Kong passengers would also be evacuated over the next 24 hours and that according to information received, a Canadian charter flight would arrive on Friday morning.
Italy, Israel, Britain and Taiwan were also preparing to evacuate their nationals, said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Around 500 people were expected to disembark on Wednesday, a health ministry official said, with the entire process completed by Friday.
NHK said that those who had roomed with passengers who tested positive would have to stay on the ship another 14 days from the time the infected roommate left.
Crew members, who have been sharing rooms, would move to separate rooms and undergo health checks, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
The United States evacuated more than 300 nationals on Monday on two chartered flights and six South Koreans and one Japanese spouse flew to South Korea on Wednesday morning on a chartered flight.
Asked why the Americans faced an additional two-week quarantine after returning home but Japanese leaving the ship did not, Suga said it was based on the advice of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).
with Reuters and AFP
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