- Secretary for Security John Lee has pressured the Japanese government to clear the 352 Hongkongers on board
- Chinese embassy has also thrown its weight behind request
Hong Kong's security chief has urged Japan to prioritise the departure of the city's residents stranded on the Diamond Princess, with only about 30 out of 352 Hongkongers on board so far cleared to disembark.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said the government wanted to bring back all Hong Kong passengers stranded by the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, or Thursday at the latest.
Lee acknowledged that all foreign governments would be pressing for the same thing, but said the number of Hongkongers on board should make them a priority.
"We have been pressing the Japanese authorities to give priority to the treatment of Hong Kong residents," he said on Wednesday morning.
"I believe all governments hope to evacuate their residents on board as soon as possible, but Hong Kong has a strong reason (to do so), because the number of Hong Kong passengers is not small."
The Chinese embassy in Japan had conveyed the Hong Kong government's request to the Japanese, Lee said, adding that the embassy had arranged coaches to take those passengers that could leave to Tokyo's Haneda Airport.
There are 3,700 passengers and crew on the vessel, which left Hong Kong on January 25 and visited Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa.
Elderly guests to leave first as Diamond Princess quarantine ends
It has been quarantined off Yokohama since February 4, and as of Tuesday, 542 people on board, including 53 Hongkongers, had been infected with the coronavirus. It is the largest concentration of cases outside mainland China.
Some 300 American citizens have already been repatriated, while 74 British citizens are waiting to be returned to their country.
Lee said all of the city's residents on board had been contacted, and more than 200 had indicated a willingness to take the chartered flights arranged by the Hong Kong government.
He said the delay on the Japanese side in handling the passengers was "not desirable".
The Japanese government had failed to provide details of Hong Kong passengers, Lee said, despite repeated requests, including how many had tested positive or negative for the virus, and the number of those regarded to have had close contact with infected patients.
"Many Hong Kong residents (on board) are very anxious … We won't accept delays (in their return)," he said.
It was announced earlier that two Cathay Pacific chartered flights would fly 350 Hongkongers stranded aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner back to the city on Thursday.
Lee said because Japan was handling the passengers at a slower pace than expected, a third chartered flight was likely to be arranged.
The stranded Hong Kong passengers were eager to leave the cruise ship, but most were not yet cleared by the Japanese government to disembark.
Among them was Hongkonger David Yeung Kun-wah, 70. He and his wife both tested negative for the coronavirus but were still waiting for a health certification from the Japanese government.
"Once the certification is received, we will have to send a Whatsapp message to Hong Kong immigration authorities, and they will give us further information. The bus will leave for the airport at around 9pm (Japan time)," Yeung said on Wednesday afternoon.
He said the city's Immigration Department told him that 46 Hongkongers had tested negative and could leave.
Another passenger, Young Wo-sang, took his test on Monday and has not received the result.
"There was also no broadcast on the cruise indicating that we could leave," he said.
The Hong Kong government has sent a team of 66 people to Japan, including staff from the Security Bureau, Immigration Department, Department of Health and Hospital Authority. Each Hong Kong passenger cleared to leave will be given a bag containing masks, hand sanitisers, tissues and a sim card.
On their return, passengers will be quarantined in a newly built public housing estate in Fo Tan for 14 days, and then take a virus test if they do show any symptoms.
Those who do would be sent to hospital.
Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, who is assisting Hongkongers in Yokohama said he had contacted around 120 of those on board, including 26 who were infected. Cheng said almost 100 of them had proof of a negative test result.
On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor posted a letter she sent to passengers stranded on the ship two days ago, on her Facebook page.
"The HKSAR government attaches great importance to overseas Hongkongers who are in trouble or need assistance," Lam wrote a post alongside the letter. "The operation to repatriate some 300 Hongkongers on the Diamond Princess cruise liner is complex and huge."
Lam said an operations team made up of officers from the Department of Immigration and medical personnel had arrived in Japan.
"With the assistance from the Chinese embassy in Japan, the team will try their best to get the Hongkongers back by chartered flights as soon as possible," she wrote.
In the letter, dated February 17, Lam said the Japanese government should obtain the novel coronavirus test results of all passengers on board on Wednesday, according to the latest information available.
"The HKSAR government has already arranged for two chartered flights with 438 seats each to bring you back to Hong Kong at night on February 19th," Lam wrote to the passengers.
"However, given the large number of passengers on the ship, whether the journey can go ahead as planned still depends on the full support of the Japanese authorities."
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