Plans to fly German vacationers home from Australia in doubt

SYDNEY (AP) — Authorities on Saturday were still hoping to fly 800 cruise ship passengers from Australia to Germany this weekend, but a sharp overnight rise in cases of the new coronavirus on board brought severe complications for the repatriation mission.

The Artania is one of three cruise ships anchored off Fremantle, south of Perth, causing problems for both the state government of Western Australia and the federal administration in Canberra.

Officials had planned to fly the 800 non-Australian passengers aboard from Perth, the state capital, to Germany on three chartered flights this weekend, before the ship departs Australian waters.

But an increas from nine known COVID-19 patients — who disembarked to enter quarantine on Friday — to more than 70 on Saturday cast severe doubt on the plan. The state government now fears that at the least those passengers displaying symptoms will not be allowed to board the flights, while local media reported that the entire plan was in doubt.

Given the known rapid rate at which COVID-19 is passed on, authorities were said to be closely monitoring the situation before making a decision on whether the flights would go ahead.

A spokesman from the German Embassy in Canberra, Australia's capital, said Ambassador Thomas Fitschen and consular officials in Perth were liaising with the federal and Western Australian governments to repatriate the passengers.

"The cruise ship’s tour operator has chartered aircraft for this purpose," the spokesman was quoted as saying on the news website WAtoday. “Moreover, the tour operator’s agent in Perth is liaising with local authorities and the ship’s captain to handle this issue expeditiously.”

Another ship, the Vasco da Gama, docked in Fremantle on Friday night, with 800 Australian passengers set to go into quarantine for two weeks while New Zealand passengers flew home.

A third ship, the Magnifica, is anchored off Fremantle with no COVID-19 patients on board, and is expected to leave after getting resupplied.

Also on Saturday, Australia's government announced an added financial aid package to assist its struggling airlines. It assured citizens that the country's hospital system could cope with the expected wave of coronavirus cases, and prepared for the return to Sydney on Sunday of 3,000 of its citizens.

Those arrivals will be quarantined in hotels paid for by the federal government, and will not be permitted to leave their rooms.

"They will check in, they're not criminals, they're decent Australians returning home and they'll receive food and hotel rooms, communications," New South Wales state police commissioner Mick Fuller said. “These truly are unprecedented times ... we'll treat these people with respect and dignity, but we'll need their support in terms of understanding that this is about all the people of New South Wales.”

Australia had 3,635 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Saturday afternoon, with a steep rise of 469 new cases in 24 hours. Fourteen people have died from the disease in Australia. More than 202,000 coronavirus tests had been carried out, the federal government said.

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