More than 600 British passengers – many of them elderly – were tonight stranded on a cruise ship in the Caribbean after it was blocked from a string of ports after a coronavirus outbreak onboard.
Five people on the Braemar, operated by British cruise firm Fred Olsen, have already tested positive for Covid-19 and passengers – including the sick – now face the prospect of a voyage back across the Atlantic lasting up to ten days.
The stricken ship, carrying 682 mostly British passengers and 381 crew, was refused permission to dock in Freetown in the Bahamas due to the outbreak.
Instead, it was yesterday forced to anchor 25 miles off the northern coast of the Bahamas, where extra food, fuel and medical supplies were delivered by helicopter.
MS Braemar docks into Jamaica on March 4th, 2020. Passengers now face a nightmare ten-day trip back home as five test positive for coronavirus
A doctor and nurse also joined the ship to support the existing medical team who are treating the four crew members and one passenger who have the virus.
British diplomats were last night in frantic talks with countries in the region in a bid to persuade them to allow the passengers to disembark and fly home. Sources said ‘two realistic options’ had been identified, but neither country had yet agreed to take the ship.
If negotiations fail, the Braemar will be forced to sail back to Britain with all its passengers – including those with Covid-19 – on board.
Last night, relatives of those on the ship spoke of their fears over such a prospect.
‘You have got the absolute target audience of the most vulnerable and at-risk on that ship,’ said Helen Littlewood, 39, from Norfolk, whose 74-year-old mother is on board. ‘My mum has high blood pressure, respiratory problems and she suffers from bronchitis and is asthmatic. She is one of hundreds.
‘I am absolutely terrified that they might have to sail across the Atlantic. No one has told us medically how they would cope if more people get sick. What happens if the doctor gets sick? What happens if the captain gets sick?’
Speaking from onboard the vessel, Steve Dale, 68, from Stansted, Essex, who is with his wife Lynda, 62, said: ‘We are worried about what is happening and when we are going to get home. It is getting more and more difficult to keep in touch with families because for some reason they have limited the wi-fi. The captain said yesterday, ‘If necessary I will sail to Southampton’. Most people are showing the typical British stiff upper lip.’
Keith Livingstone, 55, from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, whose wife Suzanne, 52, is an art teacher onboard, said: ‘Everybody wishes that somebody would make a decision as to what is happening.’
While a small number of passengers are self-isolating – including the five confirmed cases – most passengers are still permitted to leave their cabins and mingle in the ship’s restaurants and bars.
One worried relative tweeted: ‘My father-in-law, 85 with one lung, is on Braemar with his wife. He will be running short of medication. They are not at all IT savvy so contact is limited to calls to his wife’s daughter.’
Other relatives expressed disbelief that passengers were allowed to board the ship on March 2 on the Dutch island of St Maarten despite possible signs that an outbreak may have started on board during its previous cruise.
Passengers appear cheerful as MS Braemar docks into Jamaica on March 4th, 2020, before five on board tested positive for the virus. The stricken ship, carrying 682 mostly British passengers and 381 crew, was refused permission to dock in Freetown in the Bahamas due to the outbreak
The Braemar had been due to complete a 14-day cruise of the Eastern Caribbean on February 27 in the Dominican Republic but port officials refused it entry after the captain reported that eight people on board were suffering from ‘flu-like’ symptoms. The ship was also refused entry in Antigua, but eventually allowed to dock at the Dutch island of St Maarten.
Hundreds of passengers disembarked and were allowed to fly home without being tested for coronavirus. At least two passengers who left the ship later tested positive for Covid-19.
Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers joined the ship for a new 14-night cruise of the Western Caribbean and South America.
Row over holiday insurance payouts
Chancellor Rishi Sunak held a crisis meeting with insurance industry leaders on Friday night amid fears of a multi-billion claims bill from Britons forced to cancel their Easter getaways.
The Treasury is insisting that no family should be out of pocket after the coronavirus triggered travel mayhem, but insurers plan to brand the event an ‘act of God’ to avoid having to pay out. Last night industry insiders warned that ‘a major row is brewing and the bill could extend into the billions if there is a blanket travel ban coming down the line’.
It is understood insurers are lobbying for the Government not to change travel advice, which often leads to automatic policy payouts and are seeking assurances that the Treasury will step in to save struggling firms. A Whitehall source hit back: ‘If the insurance industry want to moan then so be it, but we will always put people’s safety before profits.’
An Association of British Insurers spokesman said: ‘This is a fast moving situation and we are in constant dialogue with the Government. Individual insurers will be considering any claims they receive.’ Last night a Treasury spokesman added: ‘We are speaking to industry leaders and want to ensure that families do not lose out.
‘The covid-19 package announced at the Budget was one of the most comprehensive economic responses in the world… We will not hesitate to take more action to protect people when necessary.’
Fred Olsen last night said none of the previous passengers had tested positive for Covid-19 when the present voyage began and it had checked the medical and travel history of all those travelling.
However, rumours soon began swirling that people were falling ill after the ship set sail. During an unscheduled stop in Jamaica on March 4, passengers disembarked only to find all tours had been cancelled and they were allowed on shore for only an hour.
Last Sunday, the liner docked in Cartagena, Colombia, and an 85-year-old UK woman was taken off complaining of diarrhoea and vomiting. Officials later confirmed she had tested positive for Covid-19.
By the time the ship docked in Willemstad, Curacao, on Tuesday, six people were reportedly in isolation after showing symptoms of the virus and passengers were told they were not allowed on shore. Those who were ill were tested and five were diagnosed with Covid-19.
The final stop was due to be in Barbados on Thursday but, because of the positive tests, authorities there ordered the ship to stay away, as did other ports across the Caribbean.
In desperation, the ship sailed to the Bahamas – whose flag it sails under – but it was again refused permission to dock.
On Friday, passengers were asked to list their medication so that extra supplies could be delivered to the ship. They were also offered a free all-inclusive drinks package to keep their spirits up.
It was not, however, enough to appease worried relatives. ‘Fundamentally, they should never have been allowed to embark,’ said Ms Littlewood, a marketing director. ‘That’s what I am so furious about. It could have been completely avoided but they put their profits before people’s lives.’
Last night, Peter Deer, managing director at Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, said: ‘When we took the decision to board people in St Maarten on March 2, we acted on the best advice available. No one who joined the ship declared illness and no passenger had travelled to a high-risk area nor been exposed to anyone with Covid-19 coronavirus.
‘Anyone remaining on the ship had been in the Caribbean for at least 14 days and there had been no known instances of the virus in the region.
‘No one who took our charter flights home was quarantined, and neither were they asked to be quarantined on their return to the UK.’
He added: ‘The safety and comfort of our guests and crew is our absolute priority and we are working around the clock to get the passengers on board Braemar home as quickly as possible.’
The Foreign Office said: ‘We are working intensively with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and the authorities in the region to urgently make arrangements to get British nationals safely home. The ship is being resupplied in the Bahamas.
‘We are ensuring medical supplies are available – including by funding resupply by helicopter.’