Coronavirus: Four people dead and hundreds of Britons ‘stranded’ on cruise ship

Simon Calder
Standing by: MS Zaandam has been refused permission to transit the Panama Canal: Cruise Mapper

More than 200 British people are aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Panama, on which four passengers have died.

The MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line vessel, has been sailing north from Chile with 1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board. She is currently about 10 miles south of Panama City, according to the tracking service Cruise Mapper.

The voyage was due to finish in San Antonio, in Chile, a week ago. But all ports along the coast of South America have refused permission for the ship to dock and disembark passengers.

More than 140 people on board are suffering from “flu-like symptoms”, and at least two of them are reported to have tested positive for coronavirus.

Vanessa Lucas, from Stafford, tweeted: “My in-laws are stuck on the Zaandam cruise ship with four dead from Covid-19. We are extremely concerned and worried about them.”

Reuters is reporting that a ship’s officer made an on-board announcement on Friday that one passenger had died “several days” earlier followed by two deaths on Thursday and another in the early hours of Friday.

Deaths from natural causes are not unusual on cruise ships, because of the older age profile of passengers. But for four to pass away within a few days is very rare.

The cruise line’s original intention was to pass through the Panama Canal on Friday and reach Fort Lauderdale in Florida by Monday.

But the Panamanian authorities have so far refused to allow Zaandam to transit the canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

In a bid to secure permission, Holland America Line dispatched another cruise ship, MS Rotterdam, with only crew on board.

Passengers who are not displaying symptoms of coronavirus are being transferred from one ship to another.

Rotterdam will then seek permission to transit the Panama Canal and proceed to Fort Lauderdale – though there is concern in that city over whether the ship should be allowed to dock.

Zaandam is expected to sail northwest along the Pacific Coast to San Diego, where there is a big US naval base as well as cruise facilities.

The Independent has been told that a “secret” call was made by Zaandam at Guayaquil in Ecuador to take on essential supplies, but this report has not been independently substantiated.

No passengers have been allowed ashore since they left Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile three weeks ago.

Fort Lauderdale is also the destination for Coral Princess, whose passengers were refused permission to disembark at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

She is currently about 50 miles north of Fortaleza on the northeast coast of Brazil, making for Barbados. The ship will be calling at the island’s capital, Bridgetown, on the evening of Tuesday, 31 March for essential supplies.

A Princess Cruises statement said: “During the short time at the port, extra provisions will be brought onboard to keep all guests comfortable during the onward journey.”

Coral Princess is believed to have over 400 British passengers on board. There have been calls for UK citizens to be allowed to disembark in Barbados and be flown home on government-organised flights.

Princess Cruises said: “No guests or crew will be permitted to disembark during this time.”

But Debbie Betts tweeted the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to demand action: “Come on FCO, you’re still sending flights to Peru and South Africa to bring English nationals home – what about sending a plane to Barbados to meet this ship and bring the Brits home?”​

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are doing all we can to help British people on board the Coral Princess 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.”

A lockdown and overnight curfew begins today in Barbados and will continue until 14 April.

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