Uruguay has evacuated 112 Australians and New Zealanders from a coronavirus-plagued cruise ship anchored off its coast for more than a fortnight.
Aurora Expeditions, the operator of the Greg Mortimer ship, has chartered an evacuation flight from the Uruguayan capital Montevideo.
It is scheduled to leave on Saturday morning local time and arrive in Melbourne on Sunday, with passengers to go into 14 days of isolation in a hotel.
The ship’s operator confirmed this week 128 of 217 people on board, nearly 60 per cent, had tested positive for the coronavirus but all were asymptomatic.
“Our priority remains getting everyone on board disembarked as soon and as safely as possible,” an Aurora Expeditions spokesman said in a statement.
“It has been a very harrowing time for all involved.”
Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen said the flight would be met by medical staff and ambulances, and anybody who needed to be tested would be.
“Everybody who needs to go to hospital will go to hospital and the remaining passengers will go into quarantine in hotels,” Dr van Diemen said.
Kiwi passengers will undergo medical assessments before being transferred directly to a charter flight to New Zealand.
However, the Foreign Affairs Department told AAP on Friday five Australians had been evacuated from the Greg Mortimer and hospitalised in Montevideo.
Uruguay had originally refused to let passengers off the cruise ship but later sent medical teams on board and monitored the situation via WhatsApp.
Most of the ill crew and passengers have mild symptoms and are stable, Uruguay public health ministry director-general Karina Rando said.
“We have intensive care beds, doctors are available and we are not putting the care of our population at risk,” Ms Rando told the Associated Press.
“We have the logistical and professional capacity to serve these people.”
A sign hanging from a balcony on the ship said “Thank you, Uruguay”.
The Greg Mortimer departed on March 15 on a voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia but has been docked off the coast of Montevideo since March 27.
The evacuated passengers, comprising 96 Australians and 16 New Zealanders, will be repatriated using a “humanitarian corridor” with strict biosecurity measures.
They will be driven in four buses to Montevideo’s Carrasco airport escorted by police and have their luggage disinfected prior to boarding.
A refitted plane operated by charter airline Hi Fly will take them to Melbourne.
Medical personnel would also accompany them on the repatriation flight, with the company footing the bill for the journey under insurance.
“The plane will be set up into risk zones, with passengers seated by test results and level of care required by the passenger,” Aurora Expeditions said.
The NZ government plans to reach out to its citizens directly to organise a transfer upon arrival in Australia, Aurora Expeditions said.
More than 280,000 Australians have returned home in recent weeks, with about 6200 of them disembarking from 45 cruise ships around the world.
Originally published as Uruguay evacuates Aussies, Kiwis on ship