Australians arrive home for quarantine after weeks on coronavirus cruise ship

People wearing face masks sit in a bus believed to be carrying Australian passengers from the cruise ship Diamond Princess, as it leaves Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on Feb 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - More than 150 Australians arrived home on Thursday (Feb 20) to begin two weeks of quarantine after finally disembarking a cruise ship docked in Japan where more than 600 people have contracted the newly identified coronavirus.

The Diamond Princess, owned by Carnival Corp, has been quarantined at Yokohama near Tokyo since Feb 3, initially with 3,700 people aboard - including 220 Australian holidaymakers.

The Qantas Airways plane chartered to evacuate the Australians arrived at Darwin shortly before 10am, television footage showed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 170 Australians were evacuated to Darwin, with a further 47 left in Japan after either contracting coronavirus or deciding to spend the rest of their quarantine period on the Diamond Princess.

All 170 who did evacuate were required to be symptom-free when checked by Japanese health officials prior to boarding the plane, though Australia's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy on Wednesday said some may still have coronavirus.

After arriving at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, all Australians were again screened, said Dr Di Stephens, acting chief health officer of the Northern Territory.

"There were six people off that plane identified as having minor sniffles and sore throat that we have separated completely, and they will be swabbed this afternoon, and those people have gone straight into an isolation area," Dr Stephens told reporters in Darwin.

Mr Morrison also said Australia will extend a ban on arrivals from mainland China into a fourth week to contain the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

"The National Security Committee of Cabinet has today decided that the continuing coronavirus infections in mainland China make it necessary to continue the travel restrictions on foreign nationals entering Australia for a further week to February 29," he said in a statement.

Australia has 15 cases of the virus but has not had any new cases since the travel ban was first put in place on Feb 1. Ten of the earlier cases are reported to have recovered.

The restrictions were criticised on Monday by China's ambassador to Australia, who described them as "harsh" and an "overreaction".

Mr Morrison has said Canberra would be guided by advice from medical experts, despite growing pressure on the Australian economy.

China is Australia's largest trading partner and a major source of tourists and fee-paying students.

Australia's top central banker this month said the coronavirus epidemic could shave 0.2 percentage points off Australia's economic growth in the first quarter of this year.

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