Fourth person from quarantined ship dies as Japan plans new measures


Tokyo (AFP)

A fourth person died Tuesday in Japan after becoming ill aboard a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship, a government official said, as authorities vowed new measures to fight the outbreak.

Nearly 700 people on board the Diamond Princess, which spent two weeks quarantined off Japan, have so far tested positive for the virus.

Four people who were hospitalised after being taken off the ship have died, the latest a Japanese male passenger in his 80s, a health ministry official said.

The Tokyo resident tested positive for the new coronavirus and died of pneumonia, the ministry official said without making a direct link with the new virus.

Three others, all Japanese, have so far died after becoming sick on the ship. Two were confirmed to have the new coronavirus, while the health ministry declined to comment on the diagnosis of the third.

Japan has come under increasing pressure over its handling of the vessel, particularly after it emerged that some passengers allowed to disembark after testing negative were subsequently diagnosed with the virus.

Some of the disembarking passengers were not even tested during the quarantine period, the health ministry has acknowledged.

Several government officials working on the ship have themselves contracted the infection, but authorities have defended a policy of not uniformly testing those working on the boat.

"We are aware of the risks of them getting infected when they take off a mask or gloves, so we will have thorough measures to prevent infections under these circumstances," Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said, while stressing no change in policy was planned.

Many nations have evacuated their citizens from the ship, with 450 Filipinos due to be flown home on Tuesday on two chartered flights and about 140 Indians set for repatriation if cleared of infection. Another 81 Filipinos who have tested positive for the virus will stay in Japan.

- 'Contain the spread' -

As the situation on the ship has come under scrutiny, infections have spiked inside Japan, with 156 cases including one death.

"We are seeing in several areas in our country the sporadic emergence of patients whose routes of infection remain unclear and there are some clusters of patients," Kato said.

"Now is a truly important time in order to control infection in Japan."

The government unveiled Tuesday various measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including expanding the number of hospitals that can receive suspected patients and asking people with moderate symptoms to stay at home.

The health minister has already urged people to avoid crowds and unnecessary gatherings, and the government is calling for businesses to encourage teleworking and off-peak commuting.

"We need assistance from businesses and organisations to let people stay away from offices, to avoid rush hour commuting hours," Kato said.

Experts are also being dispatched to Hokkaido, where the governor has warned he fears a cluster of infections.

On Tuesday, the J-League postponed all football matches until mid-March over the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has affected dozens of sports events worldwide.

But the government has brushed aside worries about the Olympics, which Tokyo hosts this summer.

"We are talking about the situation now," Kato said when asked about the Games.

The Tokyo Olympics "is taking place in July, so we are not talking about that situation... we are talking about the government's position now."