SYDNEY (Reuters) - More than 150 Australians arrived home on Thursday to begin two weeks of quarantine after finally disembarking a cruise ship docked in Japan where more than 600 people have contracted the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Diamond Princess, owned by Carnival Corp, has been quarantined at Yokohama near Tokyo since February 3, initially with 3,700 people aboard - including 220 Australian holidaymakers.
The Qantas Airways plane chartered to evacuate the Australians arrived at Darwin shortly before 10:00 am, television footage showed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 170 Australians were evacuated to Darwin, with a further 47 left in Japan after either contracting coronavirus or deciding to spend the rest of their quarantine period on the Diamond Princess.
All 170 who did evacuate were required to be symptom-free when checked by Japanese health officials prior to boarding the plane, though Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy on Wednesday said some may still have coronavirus.
After arriving at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, all Australians were again screened, said Di Stephens, acting chief health officer of the Northern Territory.
“There were six people off that plane identified as having minor sniffles and sore throat that we have separated completely, and they will be swabbed this afternoon, and those people have gone straight into an isolation area,” Stephens told reporters in Darwin.
Morrison said he would meet Australia’s National Security Committee later on Thursday to discuss whether to extend a ban on the arrival of foreigners from mainland China, though he hinted the restrictions may be extended.
“We are reviewing the travel ban on a weekly basis, we will do that again today and over the course of the next 24 hours,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “I can say not a lot has changed.”
Australia has prevented anyone but citizens and permanent residents from entering the country directly from mainland China since February 1, citing a need to stop the spread of the new flu-like coronavirus that emerged from China late last year.
The restrictions were criticised on Monday by China’s ambassador to Australia, who described them as “harsh” and an “overreaction”.
Morrison has said Canberra would be guided by advice from medical experts, despite growing pressure on the Australian economy.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and a major source of tourists and fee-paying students.
Australia’s top central banker this month said the coronavirus epidemic could shave 0.2 percentage points off Australia’s economic growth in the first quarter of this year.
Reporting by Colin Packham.