The first hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the new coronavirus have begun leaving a ship moored off Japan, after 14 days of quarantine.
At least 542 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess have been infected by the Covid-19 virus – the biggest cluster outside mainland China.
Passengers have described the difficult quarantine situation on the vessel.
Several nations are evacuating their citizens from the ship as infections continue to rise.
On Sunday the US removed hundreds of its citizens from the ship and placed them in quarantine. The UK said it hopes to fly 74 British nationals on the Diamond Princess back “later this week”.
A British couple on the ship – who had been giving regular updates to journalists and via social media – confirmed on Wednesday that they had tested positive for the virus.
The US, Canada, Australia and the UK will place all those released from the ship in another 14 days quarantine when they return home.
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Covid-19 has now claimed 2,004 lives in China, according to the latest Chinese data released on Wednesday.
There have been 74,185 confirmed infections recorded in mainland China and about 700 cases in other countries.
Hong Kong on Wednesday said a 70-year-old man with underlying illnesses became the territory’s second fatality. France, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan have each had one death attributed to the virus.
China on Monday released a detailed study of more than 44,000 confirmed cases indicating that the overwhelming number of deaths occur among the sick and elderly.
What is happening to those disembarking?
About 500 people who tested negative and who are not showing any symptoms are expected to disembark the Diamond Princess at the port in Yokohama on Wednesday, with more leaving in coming days.
The ship was carrying 3,700 people in total.
The released passengers made their way onto waiting coaches or into taxis, reports the BBC’s Laura Bicker, who is at the port in Yokohama.
They will be allowed to return to life as normal, but will be contacted over a period of several days to check on their health, Japan’s health ministry said.
Those who tested negative but had shared cabins with infected people will have to remain on board for additional quarantine.
The passengers come from more than 50 countries, raising concerns the ship could become the source of a fresh wave of global infections, our correspondent says.
How did the ship end up in quarantine?
The cruise ship was put in quarantine in Japan’s port of Yokohama in early February after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Passengers were initially isolated in their cabins and later allowed to sporadically go out on deck.
Despite the quarantine measures, day by day the number of infected people grew rapidly.
The latest figures show that at least 542 passengers have tested positive in total and have been taken to nearby hospitals.
Several countries and territories have separately started evacuating their citizens from the ship or plan to do so in the coming days.
Are measures taken on the ship enough?
Several experts have questioned the effectiveness of the quarantine measures on the Diamond Princess.
Kentaro Iwata, professor at the infectious diseases division of Japan’s Kobe University, described the situation on board as “completely chaotic”, in a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday.
“It was completely inadequate in terms of the infection control” he said after visiting the ship, adding that the measures had failed to separate the infected from the healthy.
The expert said he was more afraid of catching the virus on board than he had been working in the field in Africa during the Ebola epidemic and in China during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak.
US health officials also questioned the effectiveness of the measures taken during quarantine.
“[The quarantine measures] may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship,” the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned.
“The rate of new infections on board, especially among those without symptoms, represents an ongoing risk,” it said in a statement, adding that travel restrictions had been imposed on “all passengers and crew” preventing them from entering the US.
Japanese officials have defended their approach, saying that the majority of infections likely occurred before the quarantine period.
South Korea, which reported 15 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, said it would ban entry to any foreign passengers of the Diamond Princess.