Britons on virus-hit ship wait for Panama Canal green light

Diane Taylor and Kate Proctor
Photograph: Ivan Pisarenko/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of passengers, many of them British, on a coronavirus-stricken cruise trip where four people have died are confined to their cabins awaiting the go-ahead to pass through the Panama Canal.

Dozens have fallen ill on the Zaandam cruise ship, which was stranded off the Pacific coast of Panama after several Latin American countries refused to let it into port. Some passengers were transferred to a second ship – the Rotterdam – on Saturday night.

Negotiations are continuing for final permission to be granted for the two cruise ships carrying more than 1,500 passengers and crew to pass through the canal on their way to Florida, where they hope to be given permission to dock.

A decision made to stop them travelling through the canal was reversed on Saturday evening by the Panamanian government for “humanitarian reasons”. However, on Sunday passengers on the Rotterdam received a message from the captain saying they were working with the Panamanian authorities to finalise things and that it was “a fluid situation”.

Once they dock in Florida, Britons on board will still have try to fly home. The UK government is urging citizens on broad to try to get commercial flights where possible.

Panama Maritime Authority officials watch the transfer of passengers from the Zaandam to her sister ship. Photograph: Panama Maritime Authority/Reuters

The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the government did not rule out repatriation fights and one such mission was under way to bring back British people in Peru, but added that it is still possible to fly home from many countries. He said: “If we need to do more steps of that kind in the days ahead, then we will of course do so. We want to get those British citizens back safely to the UK.”

Up to 1,000 British nationals stranded in Peru were being repatriated by the UK Foreign Office on Sunday.

The British ambassador to Peru, Kate Harrisson, confirmed on Twitter that one British Airways flight was full on departure and that a second BA flight chartered by Ireland was due to take off.

“This today will be our third flight leaving Peru for the UK – two flights chartered by the UK, one flight chartered by Ireland – and tomorrow we’ll have two more flights flying back from Lima to London, bringing British nationals back to the UK to their friends and families,” she said.

“While we’re very happy to be going home, we are mindful that there are still Brits in Peru who need repatriating,” said passenger Ellie Harper, 32, who had been stranded in Huacachina, a desert oasis five hours from the Peruvian capital.

Nine Britons and one Irish citizen who were staying in the Pariwana hostel have been prevented from joining the repatriation flights. Peruvian health authorities say they must remain under quarantine for up to three months along with 140 fellow guests after two tested positive for Covid-19.

“We were then treated like we were going to get on a flight today to then find out five hours before we could be here indefinitely,” Siân Forkan, one of the British guests, told the Guardian.

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has reportedly been talking to other foreign ministries over the weekend to try to resolve other cases of British people struggling to return.

He is understood to be making an announcement on Monday of a significant financial package to bring people back, which may include organising flights to Nepal and New Zealand, and using RAF Voyager planes, which can carry some 290 people, as part of the transport.

The Zaandam set sail from Buenos Aires on 7 March with 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board, and was originally scheduled to end its voyage in Chile on 21 March. The crew had hoped they could disembark in Punta Arenas, Chile, for flights, but were not allowed to do so. Apart from the transfer to the Rotterdam, no one has left the ship since 14 March. It is thought there are about 220 British tourists on the cruise.

There is a sense of fear. We had barked messages to stay in our rooms and not to open our door unless someone knocked

Sara Fletcher

A retired British infection control nurse, Sara Fletcher, 64, who has recently completed cancer treatment, is among the passengers transferred to the Rotterdam. She said that when the lockdown began a week ago after some passengers and crew reported experiencing influenza-like symptoms, passengers received excellent care and attention from the crew. However, on Friday passengers were told that four people had died.

She said conditions on the Rotterdam were very strict. “The atmosphere here is totally different,” she said. “The transfer from one ship to another was a well-ordered and socially distanced process …

There is a great sense of fear on the ship. We had two barked messages to stay in our rooms at all times, not to go in the corridor, and not to open our door unless someone knocked.

“They knock when they leave something then move away before we open. We have been isolated now for a week and not off the ship for two weeks. I think we’re going to be kept on lockdown for the duration.” She said she did not even think that controlled walking on deck would be permitted.

Passengers on the Zaandam are transferred to the Rotterdam in Panama City bay. Photograph: Ivan Pisarenko/AFP via Getty Images

Jo Randle’s 72-year-old mother and 71-year-old father, from Watford, are on the Zaandam. She said they were coping as best they could but were desperate for some fresh air and exercise. “They don’t have any underlying health problems, but being confined to their cabin is taking a physical toll.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are doing all we can to help British people on board the Zaandam cruise ship. Our staff are in close contact with the cruise operator and the authorities in the region to ensure British people can get home safely.”

The operator, Holland America Line, said on Saturday night: “We are aware of reported permission for both Zaandam and Rotterdam to transit the Panama Canal in the near future. We greatly appreciate this consideration in the humanitarian interest of our guests and crew. This remains a dynamic situation, and we continue to work with the Panamanian authorities to finalise details.”