YOKOHAMA, Japan: A second group of about 600 Japanese and foreign passengers from the coronavirus-hit cruise ship moored near Tokyo was set to disembark on Thursday (Feb 20) after a two-week quarantine on board, as criticism of Japan's handling of the outbreak mounted.
At least 621 of the passengers on the Diamond Princess liner have been infected on the ship, which has been quarantined since Feb 3, initially with about 3,700 people on board.
The cruise ship is easily the biggest cluster of infected people outside China.
The rapid spread of the disease - Japan has well over half of the known cases outside China - has sparked criticism of authorities just months before the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
About 500 passengers were set to disembark on Thursday while another 100 people were to leave for chartered flights home, a health ministry official said.
Two Japanese officials have also tested positive for the infection, said the Japanese government on Thursday.
One of the officials was from the Health Ministry and the other from the Cabinet Secretariat, and both had worked on the Diamond Princess, a health ministry official told a news conference.
Three other officials, from the health ministry and quarantine office, had previously tested positive for the virus.
Two Russian nationals aboard the Diamond Princess have been diagnosed with COVID-19, said Russia's embassy in Japan in a post on social media on Thursday, adding that they would be taken to hospital.
This brings the number of Russians who have contracted the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise liner to three.
An initial batch of passengers who had tested negative and shown no symptoms disembarked on Wednesday. Those who have shared a room with people testing positive must stay onboard longer, as will crew.
"I'm relieved ... I want to take a good rest," said a departing 77-year-old Japanese passenger, who declined to give his name. He said he would be boarding Japan's famously crowded railway system to head home.
A fleet of yellow-dotted city buses, plus a dozen or so taxis, whisked away the passengers, many of whom dragged their luggage behind them and waved to former ship-mates on balconies as they disembarked.
More than 150 Australian passengers also arrived home after a pre-dawn departure from Tokyo's Haneda airport. They face another 14-day quarantine.
Buses escorted by police cars transported the Australian passengers from Yokohama to Tokyo's Haneda Airport late Wednesday. The buses drove the Australians straight to the tarmac, where they boarded the government-chartered plane.
Some Hong Kong passengers also went home, while Canadians were to leave on a charter flight later on Thursday.
Earlier in the week, the United States evacuated more than 300 nationals on two chartered flights.
A US State Department official said there were still about 45 US citizens on board the cruise ship as of Thursday.
Americans flown back will have to complete another 14 days quarantine, as will returning Hong Kong residents.
Disembarked Japanese passengers, however, face no such restrictions, a decision that has sparked concern.
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"If any of those 500 individuals (who disembarked) are infected, we won't be able to contain it," opposition lawmaker Kazunori Yamanoi was quoted by domestic media as telling Health Minister Katsunobu Kato in parliament on Wednesday.
Kato defended the government's response again on Thursday, telling parliament that while a ship differed from a hospital, officials had responded daily to issues pointed out by experts.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, when asked at a news conference why Japanese leaving the ship did not have to spend another two weeks in quarantine, referred to the advice of Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).
The NIID said there should be no problem if people had shown no symptoms for 14 days and had tested negative for the virus during the period their health was under surveillance.
Kentaro Iwata, a professor at the infectious diseases division of Kobe University, blasted the on-ship quarantine as a "major failure, a mistake".
"It is highly likely secondary infections occurred," Iwata told AFP, saying scepticism from abroad of the quarantine was "only natural".
He later said in a video published online that he was self-quarantining after a brief visit to the ship, where he raised major concerns about the procedures on board.
"It was completely chaotic," he said.
Besides those on the cruise liner and returnees brought home from Wuhan city, the epicentre of the epidemic, about 70 cases of domestic infections have been confirmed in Japan, including 25 in Tokyo, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The spread of the virus has raised concerns about planning for the Tokyo Summer Olympics as well as the impact on Japan's economy.
The disease has now claimed more than 2,000 lives in China and spread panic worldwide.
Hundreds more cases have been reported in two dozen countries, including in Iran, which reported its first two cases of the virus - both fatal. Those were the first deaths in the Middle East.