MSC Orchestra 'will be isolated as a quarantined vessel': Mbalula

18 March 2020 - 20:52 By ANDISIWE MAKINANA
The MSC Orchestra departed from Durban for Mozambique on Monday. Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has warned that it will be quarantined upon returning on Friday.
The MSC Orchestra departed from Durban for Mozambique on Monday. Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has warned that it will be quarantined upon returning on Friday.
Image: MSC Cruises

The government has vowed to take harsh action after a cruise ship left South Africa for Mozambique this week.

The MSC Orchestra left the port of Durban on Monday with 2,800 passengers and 900 crew aboard for picturesque Pomene, Mozambique - a day after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a raft of measures to quell the spread of the coronavirus, including the closure of some sea ports.

Many of the passengers aboard the MSC Orchestra are South African.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula described the ship's departure as "unfortunate". He said it was clearly understood when it departed with passengers that by the time it returned, the ban would be in full force.

Six passengers on the AIDAmira cruise ship, which set sail from Walvis Bay in Namibia on Friday and arrived off Cape Town on Sunday, were on the same flight as a sailor who has since shown coronavirus symptoms. The passengers had to be tested for Covid-19, while the rest of the 1,700 passengers and crew on board were trapped until the results were revealed.

"This ship will be dealt with in terms of the new regulations and will have to be isolated as a quarantined vessel," said an angry Mbalula.

He added that it was unfair for someone to take a decision to take passengers to Mozambique when they had been forewarned, and after the president had spoken. He said when the cruise ship returned, everybody aboard would be subjected to the protocols and regulations.

Sobantu Tilayi, CEO of the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) was more scathing, saying the MSC Orchestra would be treated "slightly worse" than ships that may seek to dock at South African ports without notice.

"They left the port of Durban some two days ago. We are advised that they didn't disembark at any other port. When they come back, we need to invoke strict measures such that we know exactly how to disembark those people. That is a matter that the joint operations committee will decide how to handle."

Meanwhile the government is expected to start on Thursday the disembarkation of over 1,700 passengers aboard another cruise liner docked at the port of Cape Town, the AIDAmira, after suspected Covid-19 cases were cleared on Wednesday.

"Those people have been cleared," said Tilayi on Wednesday.

"The protocol for them disembarking is what we must agree on. They are free to go, but we must manage their disembarkation."

He said they had asked the port authorities for the passengers' names, addresses and destinations so that each one could be cross-checked as they left the ship, adding that the expectation was for most of the passengers to fly back home after disembarking.

He revealed that while they had a Covid-19 scare with regards to six passengers on the cruise liner, at least they had three days to prepare for the ship's arrival in Cape Town.

"We had an option of keeping the ship out at anchor and disembarking its passengers using either a chopper or a boat. We had other difficulties with the ship as it was running low on fuel. If it was at anchor, it would have continued to burn fuel - and once a ship runs out of fuel, it's a bigger emergency," he said.

"So the decision then was taken for the ship to dock in the port … [after which] we isolated the suspicious cases and removed them."

Despite the new regulations announced by Mbalula banning passenger ships, more passenger vessels are headed to South African ports - and some will be docking.

They were headed for South Africa prior to the new regulations taking effect. Tilayi explained that some had left their places of origin more than two months ago and were considered very low risk for Covid-19.

Tilayi warned that authorities would only handle those ships that they had been notified about. Any other ship not on their list was likely to be diverted.