SYDNEY (AFP) — Australian authorities Monday let 2,000 people leave a cruise liner at the center of a swine flu scare that left them stranded at sea for days, as the nation’s number of cases jumped to 306.
Passengers and crew streamed off the giant “Pacific Dawn” in Sydney after being cleared of swine flu by a special team of nurses. Three crew who caught the disease remain in quarantine on board.
The ship has been blamed for the explosion in Australia’s swine flu cases from just 14 a week ago, after sick passengers disembarked in Sydney last week before mingling in tourist hot-spots and taking buses, planes and taxis home.
Eight schools across the country were closed on Monday as authorities bid to control the major health emergency, which coincided with the onset of winter.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon said 5,000 face masks were being sent to Victoria state and extra funds were available for research into swine flu, which has killed 99 people worldwide and infected more than 15,000.
Relieved relatives waited at Sydney’s Darling Harbour on Monday for the cruise ship passengers, some of whom expressed anger that the ship was allowed to set sail last Monday despite the suspected presence of swine flu.
The vessel was turned away from the picturesque Whitsunday Islands and city of Cairns in Australia’s northeast last week before 150 Queensland state residents were let off in Brisbane under emergency decree.
“I’m very annoyed that they were allowed to set sail knowing that they may have had swine flu on board,” said Carolyn Rogers of Penrith, near Sydney, whose parents were on the ship.
“They knew and they still allowed them to go on.”
Painter Saul Leano, 36, admitted “it wasn’t the best trip” after spending seven straight days at sea.
“We were a bit angry we were told to leave the harbour and sail in the first place. We could have been quarantined here,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old student Claire Gardner said she was shocked when she read news reports about the cruise, although many passengers were mollified by a cash-and-voucher refund by Carnival Australia, owner of P&O Cruises.
“I went on the Internet and saw all these articles,” Gardner said. “This morning there were four helicopters up there, which was a bit nerve-wracking.”
The nurses, who were sent on board at Brisbane, checked the temperature and interviewed everyone on board, including the captain.
“We’re as confident as we can be” that there were no more cases on the ship, said nurse Anne Russell.
Carnival Australia chief executive Ann Sherry denied it had been a “nightmare” trip, insisting the passengers were well looked after and saying the firm had had zero cancellations.
“The groups of passengers I’ve just spoken to have said they’ve been treated well. They’ve had 75 percent of their fare back and a further-cruises credit of 25 percent,” she said.
Figures released Friday by the World Health Organization showed that swine flu had infected 15,510 people in 53 countries since it was first uncovered last month in the United States and Mexico.