The choice for 300 Australians: stay on cruise ship with possible Covid-19 cases or disembark in Italy

More than 300 Australians on the Costa Victoria cruise ship face a choice between staying on board the potentially Covid-19-stricken vessel, or disembarking in Italy, now the global centre of the virus outbreak.

International flights are being cancelled by airlines across the globe – Qantas is set to stop all international flights by the end of the month – meaning those who disembark in Italy could be stranded there for weeks if repatriation flights can’t be organised.

Many of the Australians on board the Costa Victoria are elderly, and some have underlying health issues, putting them in the highest risk category for a severe infection.

At least one passenger on the ship tested positive while on board. The man disembarked in Crete.

Cruise ship passengers to be quarantined on Rottnest Island in Western Australia

The Italian-flagged Costa Victoria, at sea for a fortnight, docked in Civitavecchia, a port town on the Tyrrhenian Sea 60 kilometres north-west of Rome on Wednesday (Italian time).

Australians Brenda and Dave Rondo say while the ship has docked, they have still not been allowed off.

“We have to stay in the cabin, they knock on the door and leave food and they step back. The staff has gone from lovely to now, if you ask nicely for milk for your coffee in the morning, they yell at you and say ‘no!’

“We have heard different things, but not from the Captain, that we may go to Rottnest Island in Western Australia for quarantine, but … the last we heard we will have to stay in Rome in a motel for two weeks.”

Costa Victoria passengers may be mandated to follow a similar isolation course to passengers from the Costa Luminosa which docked in Savona in northern Italy earlier this week. The ship also had confirmed Covid-19 cases on board.

Passengers from neighbouring European countries were allowed to travel home to isolate, but Australians, South Africans and others from more distant nations were forced to remain in Italy to isolate for a fortnight.

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 were left on the ship in Savona, while other passengers were put on buses and driven to Rome, more than 560km away.

However, some passengers say the hotel rooms, which they will be unable to leave for two weeks, are worse than the ship.

“It’s smaller than our cabins, no hanging space and barely room to walk around,” said Ivan Maronian.

Others have complained of no pillows, taps not working and only tiny meals being provided. Many have been unable to wash any clothes since the ship entered lockdown weeks ago.

Even worse is the fear of what might happen if they get sick.

“It’s completely terrifying because if he got coronavirus on there I’m really not sure what kind of medical care he would be getting, given the situation,” said Laura Bendlin, whose father was on board.

“Worst-case scenario, he dies.”

Italy has now surpassed China for total Covid-19 deaths: nearly 75,000 cases have been confirmed, and more than 7,500 people have died.

But cruise ships have posed acute problems for health authorities around the world. The inescapably confined nature of the vessels has seen them become rapid incubators of Covid-19.

For several days in February, the ill-fated Diamond Princess which was put into isolation in Yokohama Port, Japan, after isolated cases were detected on board, was the second-largest outbreak site for coronavirus in the world, behind mainland China.

During a two-week enforced quarantine on board, nearly 700 people were infected, and seven died. The quarantine was abandoned and crew and passengers ultimately disembarked (most were placed into a further fortnight’s quarantine in their home countries).

Currently, on board the Zaandam – carrying about 100 Australians and stranded off the west coast of South America – at least 80, and reportedly up to 140, passengers and crew are sick with flu-like symptoms. A quarter of the crew is reportedly quarantined and passengers are said to be “terrified and stressed”.

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The ship is being replenished by another ship, Rotterdam, which will bring extra supplies, staff and Covid-19 test kits aboard (there are none at present). The ship intends to sail to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to disembark by the end of the month.

Even ships without any Covid-19 cases are being treated with extreme caution by ports around the world.

The Norwegian Jewel was turned away from four countries – including Australia – before being allowed to dock and passengers disembark in Hawaii, despite being at sea for weeks and having no suspected or confirmed cases.

Stung by the excoriating public reaction to infected Ruby Princess passengers being allowed to disembark unchecked in Sydney – Australian governments have tightened all movements for cruise ship passengers.

NSW has said no ships will disembark in the state until new protocols are established, while the federal government has taken nearly 300 Australian passengers from the Norwegian Jewel flown back into Sydney from Hawaii overnight, into quarantine in a Sydney motel, guarded by police.

Around the world, 3,000 Australians are stranded on more than 20 cruise ships because countries have shut their borders because of coronavirus.

The Australian government says it is aware of the dire situation faced by many of those onboard: the lack of ports for ships to dock and the rapidly shrinking avenues for repatriation once ashore.

A Dfat spokesman said the department had raised concerns with Italian authorities about cruise ships disembarking passengers in areas already hard-hit by Covid-19, urging authorities to find safer alternative ports.

The foreign minister Marise Payne said her department was working “around the clock” to help Australians home. She said the government was speaking with Qantas and Virgin about launching repatriation missions for stranded Australians, but has conceded it will be impossible to reach all Australians who wish to come home.

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‘Nothing less than a catastrophe’: Venice left high and dry by coronavirus

Few destinations in the world are as closely tied to tourism as Venice. Last year the city ramped up measures to deal with the impact of over-tourism, until the unprecedented acqua alta flooding in November brought the Unesco-listed city to its knees. The financial repercussions of the flood reminded everyone that tourism of some kind is still vital to keep this unique city afloat. Then the coronavirus crisis arrived, initially cutting short the February Carnival, which traditionally kicks off the tourist season. Now, along with the rest of Italy, the entire city is in lockdown, with restaurants and bars shuttered, hotels closed, flights and international trains suspended. With no tourists left in town, what do Venetians whose livelihoods rely on tourism think the future holds for them?

Mario di Martino, a well-known promoter of contemporary art exhibitions, is anxious but quietly confident “With all museums and temporary exhibitions closed, my work has obviously disappeared completely, which is difficult financially, he said. “But I think the Biennale of Architecture has made a good decision to postpone its opening from May until August, hopefully to give some time for things to get back to normal before people begin to reconsider visiting Venice again. Planning art shows always begins months in advance anyway, and with the important heritage Venice has as an artistic and cultural city, I do not think we will be abandoned by people.”

For independent tour guide Stacy Gibboni, there are more immediate problems, like paying the rent on 1 April. “Venice for me was always the perfect city, a place where I can earn sufficient money to live as a tour guide, leaving me plenty of free time to follow my real passion of being a painter,” she said. “But now my work has disappeared, with no future bookings to take tourists round, especially with the travel ban, as I work a great deal with American visitors. For sure, tourists will return to Venice in the long term, but I cannot count on when that will happen, so I am having to look at other means of earning my livelihood.”

The future seems even more uncertain for Gloria Astolfo, who creates handmade jewellery using Murano glass. “I initially closed my workshop and boutique, both right by Piazza San Marco, for the health concerns of my employees, who come into work by bus from Mestre and were terrified about the coronavirus,” she recounted. “Because we are registered as artisans, there is a special fund that will pay most of their wages for three months but, frankly, I may well be out of business by then with all the bills and rent I have to pay. So I have told them to already start thinking about other employment. I am pretty sure this crisis will last a lot longer than people think, and that afterwards people will simply not want to travel again for a long time. And my business, like all of Venice, relies wholly on tourism, so it is nothing less than a catastrophe.”

Those running restaurants and hotels are trying to remain positive. Raffaele Alajmo runs the historic and opulent Caffè Quadri on on Saint Mark’s Square, along with his brother Massimiliano, a Michelin-starred star chef. “If you ask me about the future, I can only say I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “I think here in Italy we are doing our best, following the sensible instructions of our government to stay home to try to contain the virus, while obviously sustaining serious financial losses. Together with our restaurants in Paris and Morocco, we employ 220 people, and we are determined not to lose any of them, but it is difficult to know what to think when each country is reacting differently to this crisis. I do believe, though, that as soon as travel restrictions are lifted – whenever that may be – travellers will quickly return to Venice.”

The Perkhoffer family have been running their landmark Hotel Gabrielli for four generations, and Francesca Perkhoffer was philosophical about current events. “We’d already decided to close our hotel for a year in December, after the acqua alta disaster, to reinvest and repair damage from the flooding. So all our clients know we will not reopen for some time,” she said. “Even though we have now had to suspend the renovations because of the coronavirus restrictions, I continue to have faith in the future of tourism in Venice. For companies operating in the tourism sector, the outlook is clearly very tough. We have government forms to fill in asking to postpone payments for rents, bank loans, refuse collection– to give everyone some time to breathe. But the season is lost, and we do not know how long it will last. The peak could be as late as mid-May for Italy, and the fact that other European countries like Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands are being affected later than us makes the outlook for tourism even worse.

“Even if we get investment loans, they have to be repaid,” said Perkhoffer. “I am curious to see how the situation will improve after corona. It will take a while before trust in safe travelling returns. Will everybody rush to recover lost turnover at all costs? Or will we all think and learn– how we can improve the quality of worldwide tourism and cut down excessive travelling? For Venice, I am more than confident that we will get back to normal very soon. This unique city is so beautiful, so special, that tourists will come back quite soon, and we are already working on marketing programmes to protect the future for Venice.”

That will all be too late for Roberto Meneghetti, a retired osteria owner who supplements his income by renting out a holiday home to tourists. “With no tourists and no future bookings, I have simply closed up the apartment,” he said regretfully. “And once all this blows over, I will have to put it on the market to recoup my investment. But I am a Venetian and will never leave Venice, because despite all these problems, I could never live anywhere else.”

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Jetstar cancels flights to South Korea

Budget airline Jetstar has been forced to suspend flights to Seoul, amid stronger travel regulations in South Korea implemented by the Australian government.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would extended their Level 4 “do not travel” ban to people coming from South Korea, with new checks also put in place for those arriving from Italy.

The new levels for South Korea will be equivalent to those passengers arriving from China and Iran, meaning Korean visitors will be banned from 9pm on Thursday.

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Jetstar has suspended flights to Seoul.Source:Supplied

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Australian citizens and permanent residents returning from South Korea will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days when they return home.

Jetstar, who launched direct flights between the Gold Coast and Seoul in December 2019,

said they would be suspending the service because of coronavirus and the subsequent drop in demand.

“Customers will be offered a range of options including the option to defer their travel dates until March 2021 or a refund if they no longer wish to travel,” a statement from the airline read.

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Jetstar will officially suspend flights to Seoul from this Sunday.Source:Supplied

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced New Australian travel bans. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAPSource:AAP

“Customers who have commenced their outward journey at the time of suspension are asked to contact our customer team to discuss options for a return flight home.”

A spokesperson for Jetstar said the suspension would take place from Sunday, March 8, 2020 and conclude towards the end of June however that period may be increased.

The airline has two more scheduled flights between now and their official suspension date on Sunday, but will make a decision on their Friday, March 6, 2020 flight from the Gold Coast to Seoul, and the return journey on Saturday, March 7, 2020 within the next 24 hours.

Last month, Virgin Australia announced they will pull flight services from Hong Kong, following a review on the “challenging” route and a growing uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak.

The airline said the Hong Kong market had weakened following ongoing civil unrest, and combined with growing uncertainty around the recent coronavirus outbreak, the airline was left with no other choice.

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Airlines slash international fares in bid to beat coronavirus downturn

Travel and accommodation providers around the world have been cutting prices to levels not seen since the global financial crisis in a bid to coax travellers back into the market.

The tourism industry has been hit hard by the global spread of the novel coronavirus, which has encouraged many people to cancel their holiday plans, especially as health agencies recommend social distancing and self-quarantine measures to combat the virus.

Those people who still wish or need to travel, however, may find themselves the beneficiaries of the deep discounts currently being offered across the sector.

The biggest discounts in international airfares were being seen between Australia and the USA, Haydn Long from Flight Centre Travel Group told Guardian Australia.

“We currently have return fares between Melbourne and LA with United Airlines from $772 per person. That’s cheaper than the fares that were offered at the height of the discounting during the GFC,” he said.

It represents a 30% drop on the cheapest fare for the same route 10 years ago, which was $1,142. From other capital cities around Australia to LA the fares were even cheaper – down to $634 return from Brisbane.

Some trans-Tasman routes were seeing price cuts, too, with Virgin offering limited flights from Melbourne to Auckland for $273.

There were also substantially reduced flights and accommodation packages for places like Fiji and Thailand. Discount aggregator I Know the Pilot was advertising seven nights in Phuket plus flights, upgrade and extras for $899 on Wednesday.

Many airlines are also offering deep discounts domestically, especially to areas of Queensland that rely heavily on tourists from Asia coming to see natural attractions like the Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks to the travel restrictions put on place at the Australian border, that market has slowed substantially. Tourism industry representatives in Queensland told Guardian Australia on Wednesday that while it was uncertain how long the struggle would continue, some hotels and tourism-dependent companies may find themselves facing closure due to the decline.

Jetstar had intercity domestic flights as low as $39 on Wednesday, and even Qantas, traditionally on the more up-market end, was offering domestic flights for prices closer to the standard of its competitors.

“With these deals, the airlines have tended to offer them for a short sales period,” Long said. Some discounted fares were only available for a day, or a few hours at a time.

While the plight of the coronavirus-riddled cruise ship, Diamond Princess, may have put many people off travelling the high seas for a while, the cruising industry was looking to increase capacity with new vessels arriving in Australia this year.

“Cruising is holding up reasonably well, considering the challenges the industry has faced,” Long said.

The best deals, though – at $73 per day – were with the beleaguered Princess Cruises.

The coronavirus crisis has dovetailed with the bushfire crisis locally, leaving some areas crying out for visitors – and tourism operators organising package deals to entice people back.

At Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, for example, SA Tourism’s #BookThemOut campaign has seen companies band together to offer food, wine, accommodation and adventure packages to help the industry recover.

The fare and fee reduction is likely to be only a short-term phenomenon, however.

“Fares won’t be sustainable over the longterm,” said Long. “Once demand picks up, fares will inevitably return to normal levels. After Sars in 2003, there was a very strong rebound in Australian outbound travel.”

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Coronavirus: is it safe to travel and should children be kept home?

How do you test for the Covid-19 virus?

If a doctor suspects a person has the virus, they will swab the person’s nose and throat and, if they are able to produce sputum, get a sputum sample and send these to a Public Health England laboratory. Scientists then amplify genetic material called RNA in the samples and look for sections that match the virus’s RNA. The test takes 24 to 48 hours. Once the result is available it is sent back to the clinician who informs the person whether they tested positive or not.

When should I keep my children away from school?

People who have recently returned from any of the northern Italian towns that are under containment should self-isolate, whether or not they have symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, or fever. They should stay at home, inform NHS 111 of their travel details, and await advice for further assessment or testing.

There are 10 affected towns in the Lombardy region of Italy, namely Codogno, Castiglione d’Adda, Casalpusterlengo, Fombio, Maleo, Somaglia, Bertonico, Terranova dei Passerini, Castelgerundo and San Fiorano, and one in the Veneto region, Vo’ Euganeo. The same guidance goes for any travellers returning from Wuhan city and Hubei province in China, Iran, and Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea.

Schools are issuing specific advice if they suspect pupils may be infected. If you believe your child has contracted the virus through a different route, call NHS 111 for advice.



What if I’ve returned from a coronavirus zone?

In addition to the areas above, Public Health England has drawn up a list of 14 regions. Travellers returning from these areas should self-isolate if they develop coronavirus symptoms. These are Cambodia, the rest of China, other areas of Italy north of Florence and Pisa, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. People returning home from these parts do not need to self-isolate if they do not have coronavirus symptoms.

What if I have a holiday planned to Italy, Croatia or Austria etc?

Travel to most European destinations is unaffected, but this may change as the virus spreads. So far, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to the Italian towns that are in isolation to contain the virus, but has not imposed restrictions on other parts of Europe. The Association of British Insurers has put out information on the implications for travel insurance. If you travel against government advice, you are likely to invalidate your insurance.

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Or to elsewhere in the world?

Go and enjoy yourself. The only area government advises people to avoid completely because of coronavirus is Hubei, the Chinese province where the virus first emerged. It advises against all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China and to the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea. Travellers to some parts of Asia may face screening on arrival, and many have imposed restrictions on people who have recently been in China or other affected countries. Officials may deny entry or require people to be quarantined. If you have holiday plans and are concerned about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, talk to your airline or travel company. The situation is moving fast, so for the latest travel guidance see the Public Health England and Foreign and Commonwealth Office websites.

What does self-isolation involve?

People who need to self-isolate should stay at home except when they need medical care. They must avoid work, school, public areas and not use public transport or taxis until told it is safe for them to do so. The person should stay in a separate, well-ventilated room with a window to the outside that can be opened. Ideally, they should use a separate bathroom, but if this is not possible, consider a bathroom rota where the isolated person washes and bathes last and then, if they are well enough, cleans the facilities thoroughly. They should use separate towels from others in the household. Everyone should follow basic hygiene rules: wash your hands, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze, and put used tissues in the bin immediately.

If I’m worried, how can I get a test?

Anyone who fears they have contracted the virus should call NHS 111 as a first port of call. They will assess what you need to do, decide whether you need a test, and if so, where you can go for one. The NHS has begun to pilot home testing for coronavirus in London, so if you have symptoms, you may not need to travel to get tested.

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