British couple on Diamond Princess question positive coronavirus test

David and Sally Abel taken off ship, as UK says it is trying to organise evacuation of British passengers

A British couple who published video diaries from a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan say they have questioned a positive test for the coronavirus, as the UK government announced plans to evacuate citizens from the ship.

David Abel wrote in a Facebook post: “There is going to be a time of quiet. We have been proved positive and leaving for hospital soon. Blessings all xxx.”

The quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess anchored in Yokohama, near Tokyo
The quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess anchored in Yokohama. Photograph: Koji Sasahara/AP

In a later post, however, Abel, from Oxfordshire, said he doubted his diagnosis.

“Frankly I think this is a setup! We are NOT being taken to a hospital but a hostel. That’s where partners are sent waiting out their quarantine,” he wrote. “No phone, no wifi and no medical facilities. I really am smelling a very big rat here! Waiting for the transfer now.”

The Abels – David and his wife, Sally – have given regular updates to the media about conditions onboard the Diamond Princess, which has been quarantined off Japan since 3 February after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus.

Asked in the comments below one of his posts whether he was sure the test was positive, he replied: “I doubt it was positive. If it was, we would be in hospital.”

The Abels’ reported positive diagnosis came as Japanese health authorities confirmed an additional 88 coronavirus infections on the Diamond Princess, bringing the total to 542. The ship accounts for the biggest cluster of cases outside mainland China, where there are 72,436 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei. China has recorded 1,868 deaths.

Two Irish passengers who were on board the Princess Diamond have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has confirmed, and are being treated in hospital in Japan.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, on Tuesday said that the Diamond Princess had been the one example of sustained human-to-human spread of the coronavirus outside of China. Dr Mike Ryan, director of the WHO health emergencies programme, said “clearly there has been more transmission than expected” on the cruise ship.

The Abel’s son, Steve Abel, said his parents were “not getting any communication” from the UK. “They are very high-spirited people,” he told BBC Breakfast, but added: “There are cracks in the armour and they are getting down. My mum breaks down in tears frequently, my dad is short-tempered. They are not getting any communication from our country, so they are in the dark and feeling very unloved.”

Some of the remaining quarantined passengers look out from the deck of the Diamond Princess
Some of the remaining quarantined passengers look out from the deck of the Diamond Princess on Tuesday. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Steve Abel told BBC Radio 5 live he was concerned that his father, who is diabetic, was not eating the right food, and called for his parents to be allowed to return home. “Whatever they have to go through next I would rather it be on UK soil,” he said. “They could be flown back asap and do whatever’s necessary here in a controlled environment. That’s what our family want.”

The virus causes only mild disease in four out of five people who get it, according to the World Health Organization, which said on Monday that analysis of data from Chinese authorities relating to 44,000 cases of Covid-19 – the name the disease has been given – in Hubei province suggested that 2% of cases were fatal.

The British government, which has come under mounting pressure to fly citizens home, said on Tuesday morning it was “working to organise a flight” to evacuate citizens stranded on the Diamond Princess.

David Abel is among those who have criticised the UK government’s response, and had appealed to Richard Branson to help evacuate British citizens. The US flew more than 300 US citizens out on Sunday, while Canada, Australia, Italy, South Korea and Israel have all made plans to evacuate their citizens.

US citizens wave from a bus as they leave cruise ship to be repatriated
US citizens wave from a bus as they leave the cruise ship to be repatriated on Monday. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

For the past two weeks, passengers have been mostly confined to their cabins, where meals are brought to them by staff in masks and protective clothing.

Experts are still racing to understand the ease with which the virus has spread, but some have raised concerns that quarantine conditions imposed on the ship appeared to be backfiring.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement on Tuesday: “Given the conditions onboard, we are working to organise a flight back to the UK for British nationals on the Diamond Princess as soon as possible.

“Our staff are contacting British nationals onboard to make the necessary arrangements. We urge all those who have not yet responded to get in touch immediately.”

On Monday, a Downing Street spokesman said those onboard the ship, which is docked near Yokohama, were being contacted about the possibility of a repatriation flight.

It is not clear if those evacuated will be required to self-isolate once they return home, though on Monday a Holiday Inn at Heathrow airport was block-booked to be used as a quarantine facility in anticipation of more potential coronavirus cases arriving in the UK.

In a YouTube video on Monday, David Abel had spoken about the mental strain that the crisis had placed on those affected. “It’s all getting to us now – not just me, other passengers as well. It’s the not-knowing factor that is the real challenge,” he said.

He said he had packed a bag just in case he was confirmed to have the virus, adding that he had heard that another passenger simply got a knock on her cabin door and was “frogmarched off” to hospital.

A British man who was diagnosed with coronavirus on the ship will be discharged from hospital tomorrow. Alan Steele, who announced the news on Facebook, said he will wait in the country until he can be reunited with his wife, Wendy, and they can travel home together.

The couple, who were celebrating their honeymoon on the ship, were separated on 7 February when Alan was diagnosed with the virus and taken to a nearby hospital.

At least three other Britons confirmed to have the virus are receiving hospital treatment in Japan.


Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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