HONG KONG: The Hong Kong government will send aircraft to Japan to bring back passengers from the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess, where the most coronavirus infections outside China have occurred.
In a statement late on Saturday, the Security Bureau said chartered flights would return Hong Kong residents to the city for free once Japanese authorities had confirmed the plan.
The passengers will be required to undergo a further 14 days of quarantine after arriving in Hong Kong, the bureau added.
The cruise ship, owned by Carnival Corp and carrying some 3,700 passengers and crew, has been quarantined in Yokohama since Feb 3, after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus.
There are around 330 Hong Kong residents on board, including 260 holding Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong passports and roughly 70 people with foreign ones.
The cruise liner's quarantine is set to end on Wednesday.
In Hong Kong, there have been 56 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has called on residents to stay indoors as much as possible to curb the risk of a possible community outbreak in the global financial centre where, shopping malls, restaurants and cafes are almost deserted.
Anger has been brewing over Lam's handling of the crisis, with critics calling on her to shut the entire border with mainland China and some medical workers going on strike.
On Saturday, hundreds of anti-government protesters, many wearing surgical masks and dressed in black, marched in multiple neighbourhoods against plans to potentially turn some buildings into coronavirus quarantine centres. They also reiterated calls for the closure of the mainland China border.
Lam has said such a move would be "inappropriate", "impractical" and "discriminatory".
Latest figures from Beijing on Sunday showed 68,500 cases of the illness and 1,665 deaths, mostly in Hubei province.