Four recently repatriated evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have tested positive for the coronavirus in Merseyside.
England’s chief medical officer confirmed four of the 32 UK and Irish nationals placed in quarantine in Wirral’s Arrowe Park Hospital had contracted the virus.
It comes a day after their arrival in the UK, where there has now been 13 confirmed cases of the virus.
“The virus was passed on in the Diamond Princess cruise ship and the patients are being transferred from Arrowe Park to specialist NHS infection centres,” Professor Chris Whitty said.
The cruise liner, which carried some 3,700 passengers, is home to the largest outbreak outside of mainland China, and is being held off the coast of Yokohama. 691 people have now been infected on the ship.
At least 970 passengers who tested negative for the virus have disembarked since Wednesday, according to Japanese daily The Mainichi.
However Japan’s health minister was forced to apologise after 23 people were found to have left the ship without being tested – after one woman who had tested negative before disembarking was found to be infected once she returned home to Tochigi.
The UK’s Department of Health said a “full infectious disease risk assessment” was done before Saturday’s repatriation flight and that no-one onboard had displayed any symptoms.
The discovery of the new cases came as 118 UK nationals – who were evacuated from the outbreak’s epicentre in Wuhan a fortnight ago – were released from quarantine.
They were pictured getting taxis to start their journey home after leaving the Kents Hill Park conference centre in Milton Keynes for the first time in 14 days.
NHS strategic incident director, Professor Keith Willett, thanked them for “the very responsible compliance they have shown during their time in self-isolation”.
“In the upcoming weeks, more of us may need to spend time at home to reduce the spread of the virus and those in Milton Keynes have set the best example of how to self-isolate, while remaining calm and patient in what must have been a difficult situation,” he said.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said of the newly released group: “All 118 are in good health and pose no risk to the public – and this is thanks to the dedicated team of healthcare professionals and other staff who have worked round the clock to keep each and every one of them safe and supported.”
Among those recently released from quarantine in Milton Keynes was Paul Wilkinshaw from Manchester, who had been in Hubei province with his wife to visit her parents for the lunar new year holidays when family members contacted them to warn about the outbreak.
“It feels fantastic to leave although it feels weird not having to wear a mask and gloves in public,” he told reporters. “The first 48 hours were hard when we were confined to our rooms, after that it was fine.”
After praising the “friendly” staff and thanking the local community for their support, Mr Wilkinshaw added: “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is sleep in my own bed.”
Reacting to the discovery of four new cases in Wirral, experts said there would be no risk to the public.
“This is not surprising news as transmission was ongoing on the Diamond Princess and it was not working as a quarantine – look at the number of cases daily,” said Professor Keith Neal, emeritus professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham.
“The UK authorities brought the passengers home as they would have continued to be at risk staying on the ship. These infected individuals will be kept in isolation and will be of no risk to the UK public.”
On Saturday, the chief executive of Wirral Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, Janelle Holmes, praised the support of the local community in Wirral, whose schools and scout groups made donations for evacuees.
She also thanked staff previously living in the quarantine accommodation blocks for their patience while they stay in nearby hotels.
Additional reporting by agencies