A stricken cruise ship off the Pacific coast of Central America may soon be allowed to sail through the Panama Canal and reach Florida.
More than 200 British people are among the 1,243 passengers and 586 crew aboard Zaandam, a Holland America Line vessel.
Four passengers have died on board in the past week, and almost 200 are displaying “flu-like” symptoms.
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The voyage was due to finish in San Antonio in Chile on 21 March 2020. But all ports along the coast of South America refused permission for the ship to dock and disembark passengers – apart from a discreet stop in the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador where Zaandam picked up supplies.
Zaandam is currently at anchor south of the canal entrance, close to the island of Taboga.
The cruise line’s original intention was to pass through the Panama Canal on Friday and reach Fort Lauderdale in Florida by Monday. But the Panamanian authorities initially denied permission.
Holland America Line dispatched a second ship, Rotterdam, with crew but no passengers, which has anchored adjacent to the Zaandam about 10 miles south of Panama City and the entrance to the canal.
Passengers who are not symptomatic are being transferred to the Rotterdam.
But overnight the cruise line said it was hopeful that both ships would be allowed to travel through the canal and then sail to Florida’s main cruise terminal at Fort Lauderdale.
A statement read: “We are aware of reported permission for both Zaandam and Rotterdam to transit the Panama Canal in the near future.
“We greatly appreciate this consideration in the humanitarian interest of our guests and crew. This remains a dynamic situation, and we continue to work with the Panamanian authorities to finalise details.”
The Panama Canal Authority said in a statement: “The Panama Canal is preparing to facilitate the transit of the Zaandam through the waterway, after receiving authorization from Panama’s Ministry of Health.
“The cruise ship is currently anchored outside Panama Canal waters, where passengers are being transferred to Holland America’s Rotterdam, as part of an operation approved by the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP).
“The ship will be scheduled for transit after entering Canal waters, which has not occurred to-date.”
Earlier, one concerned relative whose parents are on board Zaandam, told The Independent: “My father had a cough around 16-17 March, and he disclosed that on his health form, so they are not being allowed to transfer to the Rotterdam.
“We do not yet know where and when they will be back on land.
“Holland America has been tight lipped with information outside of official statements, which is frustrating for all of us, but understandable.”
The passengers have not been ashore since they sailed from Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile on 7 March.
Some with pressing needs have asked if they can disembark in Panama. But the Foreign Office says: “Entry is now barred to all but citizens and residents with a mandatory two week self-isolation on arrival.
“All commercial flights have now ceased operating to/from Panama until at least the 22 April.”
While KLM has a special flight on Sunday night from Panama City to Amsterdam, and Iberia is flying from the capital to Madrid, it is believed no cruise passenger will be allowed to disembark either vessel to fly home.