First chartered flight brings back 106 people from cruise ship

February 20, 2020 13:40
Passengers evacuated from the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan arrive at a newly-built public housing estate in Hong Kong on Thursday for 14-day quarantine. Photo: Reuters

The first of at least two chartered flights arranged by the government to bring home Hong Kong residents who had been stuck aboard a coronavirus-hit cruise ship in Japan arrived in the city Thursday morning with more than 100 evacuees on board.

Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu told reporters that the flight, which landed in Hong Kong at around 8.30 am, carried 106 Hong Kong people who had been under quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess ship for more than two weeks.

Of the first batch of passengers who chose to come back to Hong Kong, 88 were HKSAR passport holders while the remaining 18 held other passports, the official said.

The Hong Kong residents took the flight after they tested negative for the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).

Upon their arrival in Hong Kong, the evacuated people will have to stay in Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan, a quarantine center designated by the government, for 14 days as a precautionary measure despite the fact that they all had tested negative for the virus.

Lee said the number of the people disembarking and taking the first flight was only 30 to 40 initially, but authorities, by coordinating with multiple parties, boosted the number.

There were a total of 364 Hong Kong people on the cruise ship, which has been forced to dock in Yokohama, Japan for several weeks following the coronavirus outbreak.

Of those passengers, 260 were holding HKSAR passports while the rest carried foreign passports, according to the security chief.

Fifty-five of the Hong Kong people stranded on the cruise ship have been infected with the coronavirus, Lee said, adding that the 55 and their close contacts cannot leave Japan for the time being.

Those confirmed patients will stay behind for treatment and their close contacts will also stay in Japan for further quarantine, he said, adding that staff from the Immigration Department would offer assistance to them.

According to Lee, among the Hong Kong passengers on board, currently there are 20 to 30 who said they don't want to take a chartered flight arranged by the government.

The official expressed hope that those passengers will change their mind and join the second flight.

The government’s goal is to use a second chartered flight on Thursday to bring back the remaining Hong Kong passengers who have been tested negative for the virus, Lee said.

If the need arises, authorities will arrange a third such chartered flight to bring people back home.

According to Director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, who has been in Tokyo since Monday to oversee the evacuation operation, the number of the people taking the first flight exceeded the initially expected 45 because Japanese authorities had expedited the virus testing process for the passengers on board.

At 9 pm Japan time on Wednesday, several tour buses leased by the government and staff of the evacuation team arrived at the Yokohama port to pick up the Hong Kong passengers on board who were allowed to disembark and leave freely.

Besides Tsang, several other officials, including Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au Chi-kwong, were also at the scene.

The evacuees began to get off the ship gradually sometime after 9 pm local time, had their identities registered and body temperature taken, and then took the buses to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, where the chartered flight was waiting for them. Their luggage was wrapped in large-size plastic bags.

Due to some delay, the flight did not take off until nearly 4 am on Thursday, or about three hours behind schedule.

As more test results are being released by Japanese authorities, Tsang expects more Hongkongers will be able to disembark.

The immigration director said he hopes all those still on the cruise can board the second chartered flight scheduled for Thursday. If not, a third flight will be arranged.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said basic furniture, snacks and drinks would be arranged for those in quarantine at units in Chun Yeung Estate.

Medical professionals will be on hand around the clock, and the people in quarantine will have their temperatures checked every day.

Chan said the coronavirus chain has not been cut off as new confirmed cases have been seen on the cruise ship daily. Given the situation, the 14-day further quarantine requirement is a prudent move, she said, pointing to similar measures being taken by authorities in other jurisdictions.

In related news, the Chinese embassy in Japan said in a message on its website on Wednesday night that the Hong Kong government is evacuating Chinese passengers aboard Diamond Princess with a chartered flight bound for Hong Kong.

But Tsang clarified later that all the people taking the first chartered flight were all Hong Kong residents and he was not aware that mainland residents would be allowed onto the aircraft.

The Hong Kong government confirmed in a post on its Tamar Talk Facebook page that all those passengers on the chartered flight on Thursday were Hong Kong residents.

The security chief, meanwhile, also stressed on Thursday that no people other than Hong Kong and Macau residents had put in requests, as of now, to be flown back on the Hong Kong chartered flight.

Two passengers from the cruise ship have died, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported on Thursday, as a second group of passengers began disembarking after two-week quarantine onboard.

The passengers who died were said to be a man and woman in their 80s.

More than 620 of the passengers on the Diamond Princess liner have been infected on the ship, which has been quarantined since Feb. 3, initially with about 3,700 people on board, Reuters reported.

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