More than 100 Australians and New Zealanders left Uruguay on a chartered flight after two weeks stranded aboard a virus-infected cruise ship, Montevideo’s Carrasco airport said Saturday.
Of 217 people aboard the Greg Mortimer liner, 128 had tested positive for new coronavirus and had been blocked from docking.
An agreement between the Uruguayan and Australian governments was made to create a “sanitary corridor” to take the mostly elderly tourists from Montevideo’s port to its international airport where they boarded a flight for Melbourne, bringing to an end weeks of a virus nightmare.
Television images showed jubilant passengers boarding the medically equipped Airbus A350 plane — with one kissing the runway tarmac.
“This is (like) winning a World Cup,” Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Talvi tweeted alongside a video of four buses — flanked by a police escort with blaring sirens — taking the roughly 110 passengers to the airport.
“Flags waving in the balconies and residents applauding. This is the BEST of Uruguay,” he added.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne tweeted her thanks to her Uruguayan counterpart Talvi “for your sincere assistance in recent times to ensure the (Australian) passengers have been able to head home.”
She added “special thanks to… all health, emergency & other workers involved” and praised the “unique cooperation” between Uruguay and Australia.
The Australian and New Zealand tourists on the flight included people who tested negative and others confirmed ill with the virus.
On the plane, passengers were to be “seated by test results and level of care required by passenger,” said Australian company Aurore Expeditions, owner of the Greg Mortimer.
The tourists were on an expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia and Elephant Island when their adventure was called off on March 20 due to the nearest South American countries — Argentina and Chile — closing their borders and imposing lockdowns.
The ship traveled to Montevideo as it was the nearest port still open.
It had been anchored in the Rio de la Plata, 20 kilometers from the coast, since March 27.
Since then, eight people have been transferred to Montevideo hospitals with “life-threatening” conditions.
All are in stable condition, and Uruguay’s foreign ministry told AFP three Australians undergoing hospital treatment would be allowed to fly home as they were in sufficiently good health to travel.
Two are a couple who were brought ashore and taken to a hospital on Wednesday suffering from pneumonia, while the third person had been receiving clinical attention since last week.
Of the other people receiving hospital treatment, two Australians are in intensive care and their partners remained on the Greg Mortimer rather than taking the flight.
Two Filipino crew members are due to be discharged and released to quarantine on the ship. The eighth person to have received hospital treatment is a British woman.
At the port, some passengers hung a banner from the boat with the words: “Thank you Uruguay.” Talvi had described the operation as “a complex but necessary humanitarian mission.”
He added: “We don’t consider it an option, but rather an ethical obligation.” However, as Uruguay’s government considered all people on board the ship to be infected — even if they tested negative — Talvi said this week there would be “practically no human contact” between the passengers and others during the transfer operation.
Aurore said it was covering the transfer costs for all passengers and that New Zealand was organizing further travel on from Melbourne for its citizens.
After the evacuation, more than 80 crew members and around 20 Europeans and Americans will remain on board.
Those who have tested positive for the virus “will have to wait until they test negative” before heading home via Sao Paulo, Aurore said on Tuesday.
Those who have already tested negative will be allowed to leave in the coming days, provided they first pass another test.