The government will send two charter flights to pick up all Hong Kong passengers aboard a cruise ship which has been stranded in Japan for nearly two weeks. 454 people abroad the Diamond Princess have contracted the new coronavirus.

Speaking to the press on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said two planes – each with a capacity of 438 – would arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Wednesday to bring 352 people back to the city. They will then be placed under a two-week quarantine at Chun Yeung Estate – a currently vacant, newly-built housing estate in Fo Tan.

The group includes Hong Kong permanent residents, as well as local and foreign passport holders.

An ambulance carried infected patients in Yokohama last week. Photo: Supplied.

Director of Immigration Erick Tsang and Under Secretary of Security Sonny Au led an advance team of 20 members who boarded the cruise ship for preparation work on Monday. 30 more personnel will follow on Tuesday. Eight medics from the Hospital Authority and the Department of Health are also involved in the operation.

The Diamond Princess, carrying over 3,700 passengers, docked in Yokohama on February 5 after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus.

Lam said immigration officers have had difficulty in reaching ten Hong Kong passengers as there were no contact details. Officers have sought help from crew members to locate them.

Some passengers initially refused to board the free-of-charge chartered flight. But Lam said that there would be difficulty in securing commercial flight bookings if Hongkongers arranged transit themselves. Plus, the passengers are on an Immigration Department watchlist, so mandatory quarantine orders will apply even they arrive on another flight, Lam said.

The flights were scheduled to depart Tokyo on Wednesday and arrive in Hong Kong the next day, though Lam said it was uncertain as to whether all Hong Kong passengers will make the flight.

“We still await the Japanese authorities, who will be finishing all tests by Wednesday, and see if they will allow passengers to disembark… Transport from [Yokohama] port to the International Airport is a big challenge as well.”

Mrs Li, a passenger on the cruise ship, told HKFP that she was prepared to go through another 14 days in a quarantine centre: “Elderly have priority to disembark but we are not sure when.”

Li and her husband tested negative for the coronavirus, though 21 other Hong Kong passengers are receiving treatment after being infected.

Virus war chest

Following her announcement of a HK$25 billion alleviation fund to tackle the virus, Lam said on Tuesday that there would be an increase to HK$28 billion in the finalised proposal. The war chest would be used to alleviate the economic hardships resulting from the crisis.

Street cleaners in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

“We promise to outline a timetable for each item in the fund to ensure efficient and timely execution. Those in need will receive their money as quickly as possible,” Lam said.

Groups who are not destined to benefit from the fund should wait to hear details of next Wednesday’s budget, Lam added.

When asked by a reporter whether the government would send charter flights to pick up over 2,200 Hong Kong residents stranded in Hubei province, the origin of the novel coronavirus, Lam said the plan was under discussion.

Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.