With a large improvised banner reading “Gracias Uruguay” (Thank you Uruguay) on starboard the COVID-19 infected “Greg Mortimer” finally docked in the port of Montevideo on Friday and at 22:00 Uruguay hour started the medical evacuation of over a hundred cruisers from Australia and New Zealand who are to be charter flown to Melbourne, and expected to arrive on Easter Sunday.
The evacuation operation is the culmination of several days of coordination discussions between Uruguay, Australia, with the cooperation of the cruise ship operator Aurora Expeditions and their local agent in Montevideo, Universal Shipping Agency, which helped with the overall operation to end the two week ordeal of the Greg Mortimer, passengers and crew members.
The Greg Mortimer, purpose-built for expeditions to the most remote places on earth, has been stranded 20 km off the coast of Montevideo, since March 27, when it had to change its original course after some passengers fell ill with symptoms of possible COVID-19 cases.
Aurora Expeditions confirmed earlier this week that 128 of 217 people – passengers and crew – onboard, tested positive for the deadly virus, after they were all tested by Uruguayan medical teams who volunteered to go on board the vessel.
After arriving at Uruguay's coast, some 10 tourists with life risk condition were evacuated and hospitalized in health centers in Montevideo. Five of them have since been discharged and three of those are being repatriated. The rest of the passengers of the cruise ship were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.
The cruise ship with passengers from Europe, US, NZ and mainly Australia departed from Ushuaia on March 15 to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia – after the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the WHO -, on a voyage named after the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led British expeditions to the region.
El canal @7NewsSydney de Australia tiene en la mira a la operación Greg Mortimer en Montevideo y destacó la actuación de asistencia sanitaria de Uruguay.— Danilo Costas Del Castillo (@DCostas8) April 11, 2020
La sábana que mostraron hoy los pasajeros con el mensaje Gracias Uruguay va a recorrer el mundo.
Many cruise ships have been stranded on the high seas – whether infected or not- as countries closing their borders have turned them away, preventing many cruise ships from docking in their ports. Even Australia and New Zealand have banned international cruise ships arrivals due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this case, as Argentina, Chile and Brazil had locked borders, air, land and sea, and the Falkland Islands are unable to address such a potential number of cases, the vessel headed for Uruguay, whose authorities have helped with cruise passenger repatriations in similar situations. The US, UK and Canadian embassies in Montevideo have been involved in similar successful operations quite recently and relieved cruisers have enthusiastically thanked local authorities for the humanitarian effort.
Even though some press publications have emphasized the fact that the Greg Mortimer was not immediately authorized to dock in Montevideo, the truth is that since the coronavirus pandemic outbreak Uruguay has safely repatriated 734 cruisers from 41 different nationalities.
On Friday midnight in a complex “humanitarian corridor” operation, linking the port of Montevideo with the international airport of Carrasco, under strict health controls with the participation of several Uruguayan ministries and security forces, Australian and New Zealanders cruisers were escorted to the refitted sanitary Airbus A340-312 operated by charter airline Hi Fly that is flying them to Melbourne, Australia, a 14-hour trip. Hand bags is infected before boarding.
Pasajeros australianos y neozelandeses del buque Greg Mortimer embarcando en el vuelo médico que los llevará a Melbourne. pic.twitter.com/hANAAHW6Up— Cancillería Uruguay (@MRREE_Uruguay) April 11, 2020
The Airbus is specially equipped for sanitary flights and on this occasion includes six doctors and support staff. Passengers will have to undergo a 14-day quarantine once in Australia.
Uruguay foreign minister Ernesto Talvi said proudly, Uruguay is culminating a complex but necessary humanitarian operation. He added that the remaining passengers will have to complete the WHO isolation protocol on board and once it is over will be allowed to fly back to their home countries, while the crew will take the vessel to the port of origin.
no estamos esperando ninguna retribución, dijo el Canciller de Uruguay Ernesto Talvi en la operación Greg Mortimer (tv 12 telemundo) pic.twitter.com/QPX2Nr4b4A— Leo Sarro Press (@leosarro) April 10, 2020
Health minister Eduardo Salinas revealed that three of the hospitalized passengers will be flying back to Australia, two have returned to the vessel since they are crew and three will remain in hospital given their serious condition. Uruguay all along has worked on the presumption that all those on board the Greg Mortimer, passengers and crew members were infected with the Covid 19 virus.
Aurora Expeditions is footing the bill for the repatriation flight and additional costs under insurance and said the plane has been set up into risk zones, with passengers seated by test results and level of care required by the passenger.
The NZ government plans to reach out to its citizens directly to organize a transfer upon arrival in Australia, Aurora Expeditions said.