More than half of the 217 people on board an expedition cruise ship stuck in South America have been tested positive for coronavirus.
British passengers are among those on board Aurora Expeditions vessel Greg Mortimer which has been held off the coast of Uruguay since March 27.
Six people have been taken to hospital where their condition was described as “stable” while flights are being arranged to fly others home.
The vessel set off from Ushuaia in Argentina on a 16-day Antarctica and South Georgia voyage on March 15 but diverted to the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo after symptoms of coronavirus emerged.
The Australian line confirmed on Tuesday that 128 passengers, staff and crew had tested positive for Covid-19, while 89 were found to be negative.
Extra medical staff have been deployed from Uruguay onto the vessel.
An Aurora Expeditions spokesperson said: “We have been working on charters and flights for all on board with the aim of disembarking our passengers as soon as possible.
“While our preferred plan had been to disembark all passengers simultaneously, the nature of the situation and the difficultly in securing flights has meant it is likely that the Australian and New Zealand passengers will leave the vessel before our European – UK included – and North American passengers.”
But the company added” “We have been advised that European and American passengers that have tested positive to Covid-19, unfortunately must wait until they have a negative test result after which we will be able to organise their departure via Sao Paulo and then to their final destination.
“We will be re-testing all passengers every two or three days from last test based on the availability of the Uruguayan lab to be able to process the test results.
“Accordingly, we will be organising a new swab for all positive passengers in the coming two days.
“We expect as passengers test negative we will then be able to organise their departure.
“We have notified our passengers’ respective embassies. Ideally, we hope that these passengers will be allowed to finish their quarantine on shore once the Australians and New Zealanders are off the vessel.”
US and European passengers that are negative will “hopefully” be able to depart later in the week, subject to a second test and permission from the Uruguayan government.
Those that are positive will have to wait until they test negative before they will be able to fly home, the company added.
An Airbus A340 has been chartered to fly Australia and New Zealand passengers to Melbourne by the end of the week, when they will be quarantined for 14 days.
Aurora Expeditions has appealed to the Australian government to help fund the cost of the aircraft which is estimated at about A$15,000 per person.
The spokesperson said: “The plane that we have been able to charter to Australia, is an Airbus A340 that has been refitted to act as a medical plane.
“The operator is used to dealing with medical situations and although we are still in the planning stage, it is likely we will separate the positive and negative passengers on the flight home into different cabin areas.
“The cost of the flight back to Australia is material and reflects the global aviation situation as well as the need to bring all passengers back to Australia.
“It also reflects flying the plane from Portugal to Uruguay, onto Australia and then back to Europe as well as an extensive clean following the flight and the need for two flight crews.
“The final cost per passenger is undetermined at this stage. What we do know is that the hard cost equates to around A$15,000 per passenger.
“We have asked the Australian government for support with this cost as we know that it is not viable for many people and we are working on a solution.
“We have shared this information with our passengers to be 100% transparent and are doing everything we can to ensure this full amount is not passed on to each individual.”
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