Some 500 passengers leave Diamond Princess cruise ship
Total number of infected on board hits 621
Japan’s decision to keep passengers on board questioned
Brits to be flown home as soon as possible
Passengers urged to monitor their health in coming days
Death toll in China tops 2,000
As hundreds of passengers begin leaving the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship in Japan, four Britons on board have reportedly tested positive for the infection.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed the figure as results for other passengers on board the Diamond Princess are still pending.
Authorities announced 79 more cases on the ship, docked in Japan, bringing the total to 621, while around 500 people have so far have been allowed to leave.
Results were still pending for some other passengers and crew among the original 3,711 people on board the vessel.
The Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama near Tokyo after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Even though Japanese officials insist the number of infected patients is levelling off, cases on the ship continue to mount daily.
On Tuesday, 88 people tested positive, a day after 99 others were found to be infected.
Meanwhile, the FCO has confirmed that Britons on the ship will be flown home “as soon as possible”.
Confirming the repatriation plans for the British passengers, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesman said: "We are planning an evacuation flight from Tokyo to the UK as soon as possible for Britons who are on the Diamond Princess.
"We hope the flight will be later this week, subject to permissions from the Japanese authorities.”
Pressure has been mounting on the government to evacuate Britons from the ship in light of the cramped conditions and the fact the number of people diagnosed with the virus on board continues to rise.
The FCO said some passengers had been allowed to leave the ship, but also that some of those “will not be able to join the evacuation flight”.
The spokesman added: "We have the utmost concern for the affected Britons and strongly encourage them to register for the evacuation flight.”
Hundreds of passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess on Wednesday.
Some passengers said on Twitter they had received health check forms asking if they had symptoms such as a headache, fever or coughing.
Passengers who tested negative for coronavirus and had no symptoms still had to have their body temperature checked before leaving.
The 14-day quarantine period is due to end for passengers who have been kept in isolation on the ship, which is docked near Yokohama.
Japan's health minister told reporters on Tuesday all passengers still on board had been tested and had samples taken for the coronavirus illness, also known as Covid-19.
Katsunobu Kato said those who had tested negative would start leaving the ship, which has 74 Britons on board, on Wednesday.
"They all want to go home as early as possible, and we hope to assist them so that everyone can get home smoothly," he said.
Japan's government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.
Japanese health officials say the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese who earlier were flown back from the centre of the virus in China and initially tested negative were virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantines.
The officials also defended the precautions taken on the ship.
About 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after February 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the 14-day quarantine was announced.
Passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers.
Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.
The quarantine was largely for passengers because crew members kept sharing double rooms and continued to serve guests by delivering food, letters, towels and amenities, and entering passenger cabins for cleaning.
Crew members also ate in groups in a crew mess hall.
British couple ‘test positive’
The departure of hundreds of passengers comes after a British couple on board shared concerns they had tested positive for the virus.
David and Sally Abel have posted regular updates on Facebook and YouTube, pleading with the UK government to be flown home.
In a message posted on Tuesday morning, Mr Abel said: "There is going to be a time of quiet.
"We have been proved positive and leaving for hospital soon. Blessings all xxx.”
In a follow-up post, he said: "Frankly i think this is a setup! We are NOT being taken to a hospital but a hostel. That's where partners are sent waiting out there (sic) quarantine.”
The couple’s son, Steve Abel, said his father is also suffering from early onset dementia and has a number of medical issues.
He described him as an insulin-dependent Type 2 diabetic, who has a tooth infection, and was also diagnosed with early onset dementia a couple of years ago.
A clearly upset Mr Abel described it as a "very frustrating" situation for the whole family as he told BBC Breakfast: "They are just waiting. They have had their bags packed for over 24 hours now. They thought they were being taken yesterday but no-one came and there was no communication."
He added: "One minute they are being told they are being taken in an ambulance. The next minute they are being told they will be taken on a coach. I do not know what the next few days are going to hold for them.
"They are just being messed about. These are two old-age pensioners. They have been through so much and I just want someone to take care of them.
Mr Abel said his worst fear would be if his parents were separated because "with my dad's early onset dementia ... he could wake up and be a little bit confused, so my mum needs to be there with him".
As of Tuesday afternoon, 4,916 people in total have been tested for Covid-19 in the UK, of whom nine have been found positive.
The British family who contracted the virus at a French ski resort after spending time with Briton Steve Walsh – the man linked to 11 cases overall – have also been discharged from hospital, French authorities said.
The death toll from Covid-19 in mainland China rose to 2,004 on Wednesday as Chinese officials announced a further 136 deaths, up from 98 in the previous 24 hours.
However, new coronavirus cases in China continued to fall, with 1,749 more infections as the top official in the outbreak's epicentre vowed to find and isolate every infected patient in the city by day's end.