The UK government is scrambling to contact scores of British travellers who disembarked from a cruise ship in Cambodia, after one of the passengers onboard later tested positive for coronavirus.
Experts have raised concerns over the handling of the MS Westerdam’s passengers as they departed the ship on Friday, and warned that hundreds of people who may have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus have now scattered around the world.
Five countries refused entry to the ship, despite there being no confirmed cases onboard at the time, before Cambodia allowed it to dock. As passengers disembarked, they were greeted with hugs and handshakes from the country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, an ally of China who has downplayed the threat posed by the virus.
The cruise ship’s operator, Holland America, said passengers were screened as they disembarked, though some have questioned if precautions were strong enough.
Christina Kerby, a passenger on the ship, told Agence France-Presse on Monday she was surprised to be allowed on a tour of the Cambodian capital before being given the all-clear from the virus.
“I have young kids back home [in the US] and wouldn’t want to risk infecting them or anyone around me if I am carrying the virus,” she said.
Mark Harris, a professor of virology at the University of Leeds, said there were suggestions that appropriate measures had not been taken.
“If you have got people who are infected at an early stage they might not test positive, they might not show any symptoms but they could go on to develop full-blown disease,” he said. But he added that Hong Kong, where the ship had departed two weeks earlier, was not a high risk.
The Cambodian health ministry did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. Holland America said it was testing passengers who remained in the country and that results from a first batch of 406 tests were all negative.
Hundreds more passengers have already left Cambodia, including 144 travellers who flew to Malaysia along with an 83-year-old American woman who tested positive for the disease.
Holland America said it had shared passenger details with governments. The ship is reported to have carried 650 passengers from the US, 271 from Canada, 127 from the UK and 91 from the Netherlands, as well as some from Australia, Germany and China.
After disembarking, all passengers’ passports were reviewed to ensure no one had travelled through mainland China in the previous 14 days, according to Holland America.
A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office (FCO) said officials were in touch with a number of British nationals undergoing tests and that it was not aware any had tested positive.
“Our staff are providing consular assistance to British nationals in Cambodia who have travelled on the Westerdam cruise ship and are working with the operator to establish contact with those who have recently disembarked. We encourage all British nationals who require consular support to contact us on +44 207 008 1500,” the FCO said in a statement.
It is not clear if travellers will be requested to self-isolate once they return home, though some experts have recommended taking such precautions.
“I think now, given that there is a confirmed case that is suspected to have acquired infection on board the ship, the other passengers should be asked to quarantine themselves at home and alert health authorities if they develop fever or respiratory symptoms within the 14 days since disembarkation,” Prof Benjamin Cowling, from the school of public health at Hong Kong University, told AFP.
On Monday, Cambodian officials offered passengers a free bus tour of Phnom Penh’s sights, including the front of the royal palace. The country’s response to the virus is a stark contrast to that of Thailand and Malaysia, which said foreign nationals who were passengers of the cruise ship would not be allowed entry.
One passenger, Diana Walker Neve, said she had tested negative for the virus and had been able to leave a hotel where many passengers were staying.
“Yesterday we were pretty much trying to be confined but now we know we were in the first group to be tested and [the results] came back negative, we can move about and not endanger anyone.” She praised Holland America’s handling of the situation but said it remained unclear when she and her family might be able to return home.
David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said researchers did not yet have enough information about the ease with which the virus transmits.
The question, he added, was whether “the countries where [departing passengers] go have the proper surveillance systems in places to detect and test those people should they develop any kind of a fever or any signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection?”
Cambodia has so far identified one case of coronavirus, a figure that research by Harvard University academics suggested was below what might be expected.