Japan refuses to release Israelis on coronavirus ship

Israel’s foreign minister appears to defend decision; Japanese authorities say another 44 on board have been infected with deadly virus

Passengers stand on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored at Yokohama Port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, February 12, 2020. (Yuta Omori/Kyodo News via AP)
Passengers stand on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored at Yokohama Port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, February 12, 2020. (Yuta Omori/Kyodo News via AP)

Japan has refused to allow Israeli passengers to leave a cruise ship quarantined off its coast after over two hundred passengers were found to be infected with the deadly coronavirus.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Thursday expressed understanding of Tokyo’s position.

“Japan’s desire to ensure the prevention of [the spread of] infection is shared by Israel,” Katz told Army Radio in an interview.

Katz added that even after the ongoing quarantine ends, it is not clear whether Japanese health authorities will permit Israelis to immediately return to their home country.

“No one is guaranteeing that after the isolation period ends the Israelis on the ship will be able to return home,” he said.

It is believed there are 15 Israelis on board the Diamond Princess. The passengers have taken to Israeli media in recent days to plead with the government to secure their release from the liner.

The ship is expected to stay in quarantine at least until February 19 — 14 days after the isolation period began.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Katz comments came after Japan’s Deputy Ambassador to Israel Kazuhiko Nakamura told Army Radio the Israelis would not be allowed off the vessel for the time being.

“Release of the Israelis on the ship will be done only after the quarantine period ends,” Nakamura said.

Japan will take the Israeli request into consideration, he said, but a final decision will be made by the Japanese health authorities.

Later Thursday, Katz held a situations assessment at the ministry that was also attended by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Regional representatives from Israel’s embassy in China tuned in via video link and gave updates on the situation in the country.

Litzman announced that he was sending sending Deputy Director of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto to Japan to assist the Israelis still on the ship.

“The goal is to take a closer look at the health of Israelis on the ship, and ensure that they can safely and quickly come home while maintaining public health in Israel,” Litzman said.

The development came as Japan’s health ministry said 44 more people on the ship tested positive for the virus that causes the new disease, known as COVID-19.

The ship, which is still carrying more than 3,500 passengers and crew-members, has 218 people infected with the virus out of 713 people tested since the ship returned to the Yokohama Port on February 3.

In all, Japan has 247 confirmed cases of the new disease that apparently started in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters that five of the patients sent to hospitals earlier have severe symptoms, are on artificial respirators or under intensive care.

Kato also said the government has decided to allow passengers older than 80 to get off the ship if they wish to do so after testing negative for the virus. He said results of tests on about 200 eligible passengers are underway, and those with chronic health problems or in cabins without operable windows will be given priority.

Kato said the measure is to reduce health risks of passengers stuck in rooms under difficult conditions. Those who are released will be asked to stay at a designated facility through the end of the quarantine period.

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato arrives at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, September 11, 2019. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

“We are doing our utmost for the health of crew members and passengers who remain on the ship,” Kato told a news conference.

On Wednesday, Israel’s foreign ministry asked Japanese authorities to let the Israelis off the ship and to weigh “other quarantine possibilities.”

“The Israeli embassy in Japan is taking care to ensure that the Israeli citizens are receiving… regular supply of medicine and kosher food,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Foreign Ministry said at the time it was also working to obtain a letter from Japanese authorities allowing the Israelis on board to fly back to Israel when the quarantine period ends.

Litzman held video chats on Wednesday with the Israelis on the ship and gave them a phone number for his assistant at the Health Ministry, Walla news reported.

Medical workers with protective suites walk away from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo, February 11, 2020. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Diamond Princess has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast and the virus was detected in a former passenger who got off the ship last month in Hong Kong.

When the boat arrived off Japan, authorities initially tested nearly 300 people of the 3,711 aboard for the virus, gradually evacuating dozens who were infected to local medical facilities.

In recent days, testing has expanded to those with new symptoms or who had close contact with other infected passengers or crew.

Those who remain on the ship have been asked to stay inside their cabins and allowed only briefly onto open decks. They have been asked to wear masks and keep a distance from each other when outside, and given thermometers to regularly monitor their temperatures.

The virus has since spread to more than two dozen countries. The epidemic has killed more than 1,300 people in China and dozens of others in East Asia.

Many countries have implemented travel restrictions on recent visitors to China, which has more than 99% of the world’s reported infections.

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