A COUPLE have described how their dream holiday became like a disaster movie when their cruise was stricken by a coronavirus outbreak and they were confined to their cabin for nearly a fortnight.

Malcolm and Sheila, of Sedgefield, spoke as they prepared for disembarkation at Port Everglades, Ford Lauderdale, Florida, US, before their return to the UK today.

The couple were on the Dutch-registered MS Zaandam which departed Argentina on March 7 and had been scheduled to end in San Antonio, Chile on March 21.

But, on March 13, every major cruise line had temporarily suspended its operations, leaving ships mid-voyage and, like the MS Zaandam, scrambling to find ways to get passengers home.

The Zaandam had been refused permission to dock in Chile, however, and was initially denied permission by Panama to cross the Panama Canal.

The ship’s operator Holland America Line, confirmed that at one point that at least 107 guests and 143 crew members had reported “flu-like symptoms,” and that nine passengers aboard had tested positive for Covid-19.

Four passengers died, including one Briton, and according to the AP two of those deaths could be attributed to Covid-19.

On March 28, 1,450 passengers and crew who had passed health screenings, including Malcolm and Sheila, were transferred to sister shop the MS Rotterdam.

Malcolm said: "It's like being in a disaster movie and unreal, but the whole world is in upheaval. The staff and crew of both the Zaandam and Rotterdam have been outstanding.

"The last two weeks have been very much a case of up or down – and down one moment you think it’s a disaster and then after you get over that hurdle there's something else crops up.

"The worst was when they announced that they had been some deaths on board. That was a bit of a bad day really.

"At that time they had no test kits on board. So they couldn’t identify what it was they just said they had flu-like symptoms.

"Later on they identified it as the virus. That brought the severity of it home –that it was on the ship.

"The Holland American Line took it on themselves to rendezvous the Rotterdam with the Zaandam just south of the Panama canal.

"What they have emphasized is that it was too to provide more resources and space. But when they transferred to people from one ship to the other, they only transferred people who had no symptoms and had a temperature check.

"That caused a backlash from some people, who questioned why some were being sent across and not them.

"Holland American Lines were saying was that there was no intention to create a healthy ship and a sick ship, because both ships were supporting each other. And that may well be true I'm sure it is.

"But the reality is you ended up on a ship where people had not got the symptoms."

The Northern Echo:

A patient is evacuated from the Holland America cruise ship the Zaandam on Thursday, April 2, 2020 

He added: "We had been confined to our cabin on the Zaandam on the afternoon of Sunday, March 22 and the transfer took place on Saturday, March 28. So we have been in complete isolation for 12 days.

"The hardest part is you get paranoid if you have the slightest cough or you feel a bit hot because the cabin is warm you think you've caught something.

"But the more days go by and you stay healthy than the more comfortable you get.

"Our cabin's got a window but it's quite small so it's been pretty hard being locked in here for 13 days. Just a breath of fresh air would help.

"We will be extremely relieved to get out of here."

Malcolm said the ship had been placed under the authority of the US authorities for the purposes of the control of communicable diseases.

He said: "So when your food arrives there is a knock on the door and you don't open the door.

"Then you put your mask on and wash your hands and go out when the corridor is empty and bring your food back in to the cabin.

"So in one way you feel very secure because you are probably been isolated from the risk quite well compared with some people in the UK.

"The crew and the captains of both ships have been just outstanding. And the food, you just couldn't have expected anymore. The support we were given was outstanding."

Malcolm said they had been told that when they left the cabin they would be moved to sanitized coaches and driven straight onto the tarmac to get on the aircraft. The whole of the dock area was being kept empty and isolated.

He said: "I think Holland American Line has done a tremendous job in putting all of this in place. They have said it's been going on at ministerial level and it has been a real effort."

Reflecting on his experience, he said: "It's a bit hard. Thinking of it as being our dream holiday has gone out of the window now. But the whole world in the same situation on today. You've got to manage with it and cope with it and try to be positive about it all."