The Foreign Office has said it is working to repatriate 74 British nationals quarantined off the coast of Japan on a cruise ship affected by coronavirus, following the US’ decision to evacuate its citizens.
The UK government has faced growing pressure to fly the group out of Japan after Washington US recently repatriated 340 of its citizens who had been stuck on the cruise liner.
More than 500 passengers on the ship, the Diamond Princess, have so far tested positive for coronavirus, making it the largest cluster of cases outside mainland China.
The tally leapt on Tuesday when Japanese authorities confirmed that 88 more people on board were suffering from the illness, bringing the total to 542.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Given the conditions on board, we are working to organise a flight back to the UK for British nationals on the Diamond Princess as soon as possible.
“Our staff are contacting British nationals on board to make the necessary arrangements. We urge all those who have not yet responded to get in touch immediately.”
Following a request for help from one couple on the ship, the entrepreneur Richard Branson tweeted on Saturday that Virgin Atlantic was in discussions with the UK government to see “if there is anything we can do to help”.
Mr Branson was replying to an appeal from David and Sally Abel, who have gained a large online following by sharing live videos from their cabin on the ship.
Jan Swartz, the president of Princess Cruises, said the company was working with authorities to send more doctors and nurses to the ship.
However, it remains unknown whether passengers will be allowed to leave the vessel on Wednesday, when the 14-day quarantine period ends.
Like the UK, Canada and Australia are also in the process of flying their citizens home from the Diamond Princess.
Meanwhile, the UK government has booked a hotel at Heathrow airport to use as a potential quarantine site, both for international visitors who develop coronavirus and for British nationals who have been evacuated from abroad, The Independent reported exclusively yesterday.
Of the 4,501 people who have been tested for the virus in the UK as of Monday afternoon, only nine have been found to be infected.
Chinese health authorities said on Tuesday that the death toll in mainland China had increased to 1,868, while the number of people infected globally stands at more than 72,400.
Olivier Veran, the French health minister, said on Tuesday that there was a “credible risk” the outbreak could become a pandemic.
It came shortly after an elderly tourist who died in Paris became the first coronavirus fatality in Europe.
Additional reporting by agencies