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Cruise guests still at sea as Orlando Ashford asks for “grace and compassion”

Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford has accused countries of turning their backs on thousands of people “left floating at sea” after cruise ships were denied access to ports. 

In a video message, he called for “compassion and grace” after four people died and eight people tested positive for Covid-19 on the Zaandam. As March 30, 76 guests and 117 crew on board have influenza-like illness, while a number of healthy patients had been transferred to Rotterdam. There are believed to be a number of British guests on board both ships. 

Zaandam and Rotterdam have been granted access to pass through the Panama Canal, but Ashford added: “We need confirmation from a port that is willing to extend the same compassion and grace that Panama did, and allow us to come in so our guests can go straight to the airport for flights home. 

“We have seen a notable and steady decline in cases of the last 48 hours, which shows the immediate actions we took have helped contain spread. However, there are also 1,167 healthy guests and 1,130 healthy crew across these two ships,” he added.

Both ships are travelling towards Florida, but the state’s governor, the Republican Ron DeSantis, said on Monday that guests cannot be “dumped” in his state, dismissing those on board as mostly “foreigners”. Coral Princess is also heading to Florida after being refused disembarkation in Brazil; Princess Cruises confirmed to Cruise Adviser that there are 374 British guests on board. In a statement, Princess said: “Despite continued efforts from consulates, Anvisa [the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency] has denied the disembarkation of Coral Princess guests, including those with confirmed outbound flights.” It added: “There remains no known risk of Covid-19 onboard.”

Meanwhile, Cruise & Maritime Voyages performed a remarkable mid-ocean transfer between two of its ships, Columbus and Vasco da Gama, after it was denied access into Thailand. Columbus is now undertaking a 7,842 nautical mile voyage directly back to the UK with 907 guests, including 602 British nationals, and 619 crew members on board. The voyage includes a technical call in Colombo, Sri Lanka then travels via the Suez Canal with a final technical call, before arriving back in Tilbury on April 13. 

Cuba offered a haven to the Braemar, the Fred Olsen ship, after several other Caribbean countries declined to let it dock. Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, said it wanted to “reinforce healthcare, solidarity and international cooperation”. The communist country, which has recently sent doctors to Italy to help fight the spread of Covid-19, has been accused by some of running a PR exercise, but guests, who have since been flown back to the UK, have expressed their gratitude.

“Thanks once more to the people of Cuba for their generosity and humanity,” wrote one guest, Steve Dale, on Twitter. “Hoping to come back here one day when we’ve all forgotten about #Covid19.”

“The worst thing has been being in limbo, not knowing what is going to happen next. We have been sailing around in circles for the last week, really,” another guest Clive Whittington told Reuters before disembarkation. “Whether the Cubans took us in to get brownie points or not, we are very grateful.”

According to the trade organisation Clia, around five per cent of cruise ships around the world still have passengers on board. Andy Harmer, director of Clia UK & Ireland, said: “A handful of ships are in process of concluding their voyages. Our cruise line members are singularly focused on the health and safety of those on board, including bringing the ships safely back to port as soon as they can to ensure the safe and smooth return of passengers to their homes.

“Flight restrictions and port closures have created some logistical challenges. However, the industry and individual member lines are addressing these issues as quickly as they can.”

This week, the government announced a £75m airlift operation to rescue hundreds of thousands of British nationals stranded abroad because of the pandemic. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced the government had reached an agreement with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, Jet2 and Titan to help repatriate Britons from places where commercial airlines were no longer flying. 

However, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “We were promised a new strategy on repatriations today, but for the hundreds of thousands of Brits stranded abroad and their families back home – it was just more of the same.”  

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