‘Backed into a corner’: Aussies evacuated as infections rise
Australians stranded on the coronavirus-hit cruise ship off the coast of Japan will be flown home on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said more than 200 Australians currently on board the Diamond Princess would have to face a further 14 days of quarantine at a workers' village outside Darwin.
"I thank the Japanese government for the care and assistance they have provided to those Australians who have been on-board the vessel," Mr Morrison said.
It comes as Japanese officials confirmed 99 more people on board the cruise ship have been infected by the virus, bringing the total to 454.
Outside China, the ship has had the largest number of cases of the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus that emerged in China late last year.
The ministry said it now has tested 1723 people on the Diamond Princess. The ship had about 3700 passengers and crew.
Mr Morrison acknowledged that Australians would feel "very frustrated" about further quarantine measures once back on home soil.
"It's frustrating and unfortunate but it is absolutely necessary to make sure we put the measures in place that have been so effective in containing the spread of this virus and ensuring that Australians here can go about their lives on a daily basis without any concern about the impact of this virus on their health," he said.
Some of the Australians on board the Diamond Princess said they were disappointed by the prospect of further quarantine, but felt they had no better option. Many are elderly.
Anyone who chooses against taking the flight will be denied entry to Australia until March 4 and could face further entry restrictions.
"We feel like we've been backed into a corner," says New South Wales retiree Kimberly Vincent, 73, who will board the flight along with husband Ellis, 77.
"But we have a sneaking suspicion all has not been right with the quarantine measures aboard the ship, because it has been spreading."
A total of 24 Australians are being treated in onshore hospitals in Japan after contracting the coronavirus that has spread through the ship. More than 350 passengers and crew have tested positive to the illness, representing an infection rate of about 10 per cent.
About 340 passengers from the United States were flown to military air bases yesterday in a hastily arranged evacuation.
Fourteen Americans being evacuated by plane from Japan to the US after disembarking the cruise ship have tested positive for the coronavirus.
US officials said they learned of the positive test results as the evacuees were preparing to return to America on two chartered Boeing 747s.
"These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialised containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols," the statement said.
"During the flights, these individuals will continue to be isolated from the other passengers."
One flight is headed to Travis air force Base in California and the other to Lackland air force Base in Texas, the Defence Department said.
It's unclear whether the coronavirus patients were travelling on one or both planes.
The group was said to be screened for symptoms of the coronavirus before they were allowed to board the planes.
Officials said that upon arrival, all passengers will undergo an additional 14-day quarantine.
Hong Kong, Canada, and Italy have also announced plans to send flights for Diamond Princess passengers.
The ship is docked in Yokohama, near Tokyo. It was placed under a Japanese quarantine order when people began falling ill at the beginning of the month.
The lockdown is set to end on Wednesday but passengers must first test negative to coronavirus before they are allowed to disembark.
Diamond Princess captain Gennaro Arma acknowledged passengers' concerns in an announcement yesterday.
"We fully understand that recent developments could mean a few more laps for you in this race to the finish line," he said of the approaching quarantine deadline.
He said the common goal for everyone left on board was to "protect our health, stay safe, and return home to our loved ones as soon as we can".
The Diamond Princess situation represents the largest coronavirus cluster outside China. Authorities in Japan are also scrambling to control infections unrelated to the ship, with about 60 confirmed cases nationwide.
There are also coronavirus fears for a number of Australians on board another cruise ship who are in the process of being tested by Cambodian authorities.
The Holland America cruise line says it's working with governments and health experts to track passengers who disembarked from its Westerdam cruise ship after an American woman tested positive for coronavirus in Malaysia.
The cruise line, which is owned by Carnival Corp, said none of the other 1454 passengers and 802 crew have reported any symptoms.
"Guests who have already returned home will be contacted by their local health department and be provided with further information," a statement from the company said.
Passengers had been cleared to travel by Cambodian authorities after health checks when the cruise ship docked on Thursday.
It had spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand.
However, Ms Payne said 39 Australians were in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh after the ship finally docked, while another 10 stayed on the ship.
"They have been provided with hotel accommodation in the capital. They are in the process of being tested by Cambodian authorities. We expect that testing to be returned within the next 48 hours," Ms Payne said.
"Ten Australians have remained on the ship, as it is docked in Cambodia. Cambodian government making arrangements to test those people who remained on the ship, there are another 200 passengers on board the vessel. That testing will occur over the next two or three days."
Mr Morrison added there were no additional evacuation flights planned to rescue Australians trapped in the virus' epicentre in Wuhan, China.
There have been 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia. Eight people have recovered, while another seven are in a stable condition.
The outbreak has infected more than 71,000 globally, and has been attributed to 1775 deaths.
According to CNN, nearly half of China's population - 780 million people - are living under some form of travel restrictions as authorities struggle to contain the outbreak.
CORONAVIRUS EVACUEES TO MAKE JOURNEY HOME
Australians quarantined on Christmas Island over coronavirus fears have begun their journeys home after an uncertain two weeks in isolation.
More than 270 Australians were isolated in the island's detention centre for 14 days in an unprecedented quarantine action to protect the country against the deadly virus.
No one in the centre tested positive to the virus, but evacuees will reportedly face a further medical examination before they are transferred back to Australia.
During the two-week stint, three people - including a young girl - were suspected of developing the illness, but tests came back negative.
Three flights are today expected to leave the island, returning the first 241 strong group of evacuees home.
The remaining 36 are expected to be released on Wednesday.
The evacuees were removed from the Chinese province of Hubei, where the virus was first detected.
They were flown to Western Australia on a chartered Qantas flight before being shuttled to the centre on smaller planes where they were greeted by a mural reading "Welcome to Christmas Island" painted by locals.
They have expressed relief, gratitude - and for some, a wish that they could have stayed longer - as they return home.
Some of the evacuees touched down in Sydney and Perth on Monday night, while others were bound for Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. Melissa Wang, who disembarked in Sydney, said she was "feeling so exhausted it's kind of just a relief".
She said her experience on the island was "really positive" and she was "very surprised by the care of all the teams".
"I was expecting a detention centre, and that's what it was, but did not expect the warmth of the people," Ms Wang told AAP.
In Perth, 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor told reporters she enjoyed "running around, being free (and) seeing all the crabs" but said there were daily health checks too.
"It was really good, (I) made some new friends and actually enjoyed the place," she said.
Elizabeth said she mostly played sport, including tennis, and did not have to do schoolwork.
Asked if she was happy to he home, Isabel Taylor, nine, said: "Yes and no at the same time … I'd like to stay for another two weeks but we're already here now."
Mother Bing Bing Gao said she planned to go home and rest.
"I just want to say a big thanks to our government," she said. Ms Gao said she too had a "really great time" on Christmas Island. "I was a bit worried before but then once we got there we were actually treated so well and they looked after us so well. I'm just so grateful," she said.
"Actually, we wished we could have stayed a bit longer. (I) didn't want to come home." Ms Gao said she was never worried she might have the virus because she was far from the city, staying at an orchard.
She said getting out of Wuhan had been difficult and stressful because the city was blocked.
Ms Gao still has family in China.
"Of course I do worry about them," she said.
"We have such big population in China, and I have to say, you do have a lot of chance to get the virus."
Mel Pleno was quarantined with his wife and three kids after "a lot of uncertainty about our personal safety and wellbeing in Wuhan".
He said it was an "easy choice" to accept the government's evacuation offer. "We're very grateful for the Australian government and their response to the situation, and chartering a plane for my family to come back," Mr Pleno told AAP in Sydney.
"While coming straight to Christmas Island wasn't the ideal place to come at first instance, we were well taken care of."
About 35 people have been left on the island for another flight on Wednesday. None of the people will be required to take further tests after they get home, as they were cleared just before leaving the island.
More than 69,000 cases have been reported globally with 15 of those in Australia.
The $400 million Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre has a gym, basketball courts a tennis court and a hockey field, but the facilities were of little use to the evacuees, many of whom chose to stay isolated in their rooms.
Photos showed small groups of adults and children stretching their legs in the sunshine and kicking around a soccer ball while wearing white face masks which they were required to use in communal areas.
Those quarantined were subjected to frequent temperature checks by Australian Medical Assistance Team members in a bid to catch any warning signs on the virus.
Fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, as well as breathing difficulties, headaches, sneezing, coughing and fatigue.
Reports emerged from evacuees that some were concerned about the standard of hygiene in the centre after a cockroach was discovered in one of the rooms, complaints were also made about the slow internet connection.
These complaints were ridiculed in a closed Facebook group where Christmas Island locals called the evacuees "ungrateful".
"Has any CI resident been able to contain cockroaches? Welcome to the real world, not just Christmas Island. Were they expecting a four-star resort? Just imagine the cost and effort involved and the logistic nightmare in bringing them here," Sharon Tisdale wrote on the CI Blackboard page.
Travel restrictions will remain in place for people travelling from mainland China until at least February 22.
The Department of Home Affairs has advised entry to Australia will be denied to travellers unless they are Australian citizens or residents, New Zealand citizens who live in Australia, or immediate family members of Australian citizens and residents.
AUSSIE CRUISERS FURIOUS OVER MORE QUARANTINE AT HOME
An exhausted Melbourne woman stuck on a coronavirus-infected cruise ship in Japan says Australian passengers are being kept in the dark about the government's plans for them.
Vera Koslova-Fu has pleaded with the federal government to reveal if they will remove Australians from the Diamond Princess and force them into a new period of quarantine once they are back home.
She has raised the prospect of people refusing to join any Australian evacuation, in the hope they can leave the ship as early as Friday when their existing quarantine period expires.
"There's been some chatter about people not leaving, if we are being evacuated," Ms Koslova-Fu told ABC television today, hours after the US took its citizens off the ship.
She said Canada and Hong Kong were doing the same, and that all those groups apparently faced a further 14 days of quarantine post-evacuation.
But she questioned why people like her - who have so far tested negative for coronavirus - should have to endure that.
"(Does) having a negative result mean nothing? Is it because the Australian government doubt Japan's testing ability?"
She said she was relying on news reports and journalists in Tokyo and Australia for information, and that in recent days the flow of information to passengers had been "very delayed".
"We just feel like we're kept in the dark," she said.
She said the ship's captain had been doing his best when he was "allowed" to share information, including that those who continue to return negative test results can get off the ship as early as Friday.
"We will be allowed, if it is a negative result, we will be allowed to disembark and they are organising disembarkment process as well as ways to get us home.
"I don't want to go to another facility to be quarantined for 14 days if I am tested negative. You need to tell me why I need to have a further 14 days of quarantine if I am tested negative?"
An Australian infectious disease expert is in Japan assessing the situation on board the ship.
NEW THEORY ON WHERE CORONAVIRUS STARTED
Up until now researches had not pinpointed exactly how the newly named Covid-19 first infected people.
Evidence has previously suggested it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at the now closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the southeastern city of Wuhan.
Now scientists believe that the Wuhan Centre for Disease and Control and Prevention was the possible source because it "hosted animals in laboratories for research purposes", including bats, and was "within 280 metres of the market".
The research centre was also next to the Union Hospital where the first group of doctors was infected.
In the paper, titled The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus, the researchers reveal tissue samples were regularly extracted from the bats.
On one occasion, a worker at the WCDCP was "once attacked by bats and the blood of a bat (was) shot on his skin", scientists from South China University of Technology in Guangzhou said.
"He knew the extreme danger of the infection so he quarantined himself for 14 days," the scientists wrote.
"In another accident, he quarantined himself again because bats (urinated) on him."
A second lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, was 12km from the seafood market. Bats were used for research purposes there too.
The scientists wrote that the institute reported that Chinese horseshoe bats were natural reservoirs for the SARS virus that caused the 2002 pandemic and that "somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus".
CHINA CALLS FOR END TO 'HARSH' TRAVEL BAN
China's ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye has called on Australia to remove "harsh" travel ban restrictions in the wake of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
In an exclusive interview with Sky News chief anchor Kieran Gilbert, Mr Cheng said the travel ban "unnecessarily" interfered with trade and travel and said Australia should be "cool-headed and not panic".
"We are deeply disappointed by the restrictive measures that have been taken because as I see it they are out of proportion," he said.
"As you said it is inconsistent with the professional recommendations of the World Health Organisation.
"We have expressed our strong wish and hope that the Australian government in its next review will take into account the whole situation and take a balanced approach and consider removing those harsh restrictions or at least relax restrictions."
Mr Gilbert pointed out that China itself had taken extraordinary measures well beyond recommendations of the WHO by detaining millions of people in Wuhan and the broader Hubei province.
Mr Cheng responded saying the situation in China was "totally different" from that in Australia.
"We need to take extra measures to stop the spread of the disease whereas here the situation is totally different," he said.
"Australia is only one of a few countries which has taken such sweeping and stringent restrictive measures on travel.
"We hope the (Australian) government will take a balanced approach and remove harsh restrictions or at least relax them."
It comes as Chinese officials in the coronavirus-ravaged city of Xiaogan have issued residents with one of two options - stay at home or face jail time, according to a report.
The city - which is the worst-impacted city after viral ground-zero Wuhan - warned residents that they will be subject to 10 days in jail if they break the house arrest, the South China Morning Post reported.
"All urban residents must stay at home and are strictly forbidden from going out," officials said.
"Rural villagers are strictly forbidden from … visiting each other or holding any gatherings."
More than 2700 cases of the virus have been detected among the 4.8 million residents in Xiaogan, which is located around 60 kms from Wuhan in the Hubei province, the report said.
The death toll in the city reached 70 on Sunday as the ban went into effect at midnight.
Xiaogan officials also ordered all businesses to close in addition to banning vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles from the roads, the report said. Anyone who doesn't follow these orders will be fined 500 yuan, or about $100.