Four cruise ship passengers flown to England this weekend have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the UK to 13.
The four – confirmed to be British nationals – have been transferred to specialist NHS infection centres.
They are the first diagnoses of the Covid-19 strain in people brought back to the UK on repatriation flights.
They had been among a group of 30 Britons and two Irish citizens who arrived at a quarantine block at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside on Saturday.
England’s chief medical officer said the virus was passed on in the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had been held for more than two weeks off the coast of Japan.
Professor Chris Whitty said: “Four further patients in England have tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 13.
“The virus was passed on in the Diamond Princess cruise ship and the patients are being transferred from Arrowe Park to specialist NHS infection centres.”
Two of the patients are in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, one is in the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and a fourth was transferred to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle tonight, NHS England said.
Professor Keith Willett, NHS strategic incident director for coronavirus said the centres are “well prepared” to deal with the cases and appealed to local communities to continue to have a “calm response” to confirmed and potential diagnoses.
The Department of Health said a “full infectious disease risk assessment” was done before Saturday’s repatriation flight and that no-one who boarded the plane had displayed any symptoms of the virus.
Any more passengers who test positive will immediately be taken into specialist NHS care, the department said.
It added that “appropriate arrangements” are in place at Arrowe Park, including strict separation of passengers from staff and from each other.
It is understood some British nationals who are part of the Diamond Princess crew opted to remain on the ship.
Almost one-fifth of the 3,711 passengers originally on board the cruise liner have been infected.
Japan’s health ministry announced on Sunday that one of the passengers taken to hospital after testing positive for the virus has died.
The death of the Japanese man aged in his eighties brings the number of fatalities from the Diamond Princess to three.
British couple David and Sally Abel, from Northamptonshire, who were on the cruise for their 50th wedding anniversary, are still in a Japanese hospital after being diagnosed with coronavirus and pneumonia.
Relatives said the couple are both “having a really tough time” and feel “very much in the dark” in terms of treatment, adding that they are awaiting further tests.
Speaking in a liveblog on Sunday, their daughter-in-law Roberta Abel said: “We want to get them discharged from the hospital and back to the UK as negative.
“They are scared. They said to us today, ‘If we get that virus again, we are not coming home’.”
The development comes as 118 people were released from a coronavirus quarantine centre in Milton Keynes.
The group – who had been brought back to Britain earlier this month on a repatriation flight from Wuhan – spent 14 days at the Kents Hill Park training and conference centre.
They were allowed to leave on Sunday, having all tested negative for the virus.
One of the group, which included around 10 children and a family of four, said it was a “fantastic” feeling to be able to go home.
Paul Walkinshaw, from Manchester, left with his wife Lihong, having been on holiday visiting her parents in the city of Shiyan for the Chinese New Year when family members contacted them and told them about the virus outbreak.
Speaking to reporters as he exited the centre, he said: “It feels fantastic to leave, although it feels weird not having to wear a mask and gloves in public.
“The first 48 hours were hard when we were confined to our rooms, after that it was fine.”
The 39-year-old praised “friendly” staff and the local community for their support and said he was looking forward to sleeping in his own bed again.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is sleep in my own bed.”
Another evacuee, whose name was given as Sadiqi, said they had been looked after “brilliantly”.
“Since we’ve been quarantined, we’ve been treated brilliantly.
“It was definitely hard at first (inside the quarantine) but it is just what it is. It was just one of those things.”
The training and conference centre has been professionally cleaned and will be back to business as usual from next week, NHS England said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock commended the evacuees “for their patience and perseverance”, and NHS strategic incident director Professor Keith Willett thanked them for “the very responsible compliance they have shown”.
In a message to Arrowe Park staff, the chief executive of Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, Janelle Holmes, said: “We always had a plan in place for this eventuality – and this has been carried out successfully. I want to repeat and reassure that we are continuing to work with national experts from Public Health England at all times and they are on site, along with local infection control experts and other healthcare professionals.
“When guests arrived yesterday evening, we followed clear guidance in relation to infection prevention control. This was to minimise the chance of any infection spreading.
“Just to reiterate that our hospital is running as usual including all community-led services. Please continue to help us to ensure that our patients are getting accurate information on this situation and are attending appointments as usual.”
Mrs Holmes added: “We are extremely grateful to those members of staff from across all our partners who are continuing to support our guests in such a professional way. And, just as importantly, other staff for their patience in what are exceptional evolving circumstances.
“We are all used to dealing with people who can have a range of illnesses and infections as part of our day jobs – and I’m sure that as professionals working in the NHS we will all continue to deliver safe and effective care for patients.”
She said that staff would receive a “face-to-face update” on Monday following the removal of the four evacuees from an accommodation block at Arrowe Park to an off-site isolation facility.