112 passengers from the Greg Mortimer are set to board a medically equipped plane to Melbourne and bring to an end weeks of virus nightmare

The cruise ship had been anchored off the coast of Uruguay since March 27 after the country initially refused to let passengers off

Uruguay has begun evacuating 112 Australians and New Zealanders from a cruise ship that was anchored off the South American country’s coast since March 27 with

with the new coronavirus.

At least six Americans, five British citizens and passengers from other countries, as well 83 crew members, remain aboard the Greg Mortimer, a ship operated by

’s Aurora Expeditions, while arrangements for their evacuation are made.

“Our priority remains to disembark everyone as soon as possible and with the utmost security,” Aurora Expeditions said in a statement on Friday.

A sign hanging from a balcony on the Greg Mortimer said “Thank you, Uruguay.” The country had originally refused to let passengers off the cruise ship, after authorities said that 128 of the 217 people on board had tested positive for the new coronavirus. They later sent medical teams to the ship to ensure people’s health and monitored the situation via WhatsApp.

Most of the crew and passengers have mild symptoms and are stable, said Karina Rando, director general of Uruguay’s Public Health Ministry.

“We are at a moment in the epidemic that allows us to evacuate. We have intensive care beds, doctors are available and we are not putting the care of our population at risk,” Rando said. “We have the logistical and professional capacity to serve these people.”

The Greg Mortimer departed March 15 on a voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia that was titled “In Shackleton’s Footsteps”, a reference to the polar explorer who led British expeditions to the region and died there in 1922.

After arriving at Uruguay’s coast, eight tourists were evacuated and interned in health centres in Montevideo. Five of them have since been discharged and three of those will be repatriated.

The evacuated passengers will be repatriated using a humanitarian corridor with biosecurity measures unprecedented for the South American country.

They will be driven in four buses to Montevideo’s Carrasco airport, escorted by police and medical personnel. At the runway, the passengers and their luggage will be disinfected before boarding.

A refitted aeroplane operated by charter airline Hi Fly will take them to Melbourne, Australia, where the passengers will undergo a 14-day quarantine, the company said. The flight is expected to leave Uruguay at around 2am Saturday local time.

On Uruguay’s mainland there are 494 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and seven deaths.

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