Another 44 people have today tested positive for coronavirus on board a quarantined cruise ship in Japan.
The dozens of new cases bring the total on board the Diamond Princess to 218, in addition to a quarantine officer who tested positive yesterday.
The remaining 3,500 passengers and crew are confined to their cabins with questions mounting about whether the quarantine is working.
Japan said today that elderly passengers could be moved off the ship if they test negative for the virus and quarantined in government housing instead.
The crisis on the Diamond Princess (pictured in Yokohama today) deepened on Thursday after another 44 cases were confirmed on board
Passengers look out on the balcony of a cabin on the cruise ship Diamond Princess today as they wait in quarantine in Yokohama
Japan initially screened all 3,711 passengers and crew last week after an 80-year-old passenger who left the ship in January was confirmed to have the virus.
Nearly 300 people were selected for further tests because they showed symptoms or had contact with known patients, resulting in 61 initial positive tests.
Since then, the tests have expanded to those who had contact with the infected passengers, producing a spiralling number of confirmed cases.
Today’s 44 new cases came from a batch of 221 new tests, with 43 passengers and one crew member found to be infected.
Twenty-nine of the new patients are Japanese, local media said.
Three Britons are known to be among the 218 people infected so far, including honeymooner Alan Steele who was taken to hospital on the mainland.
Mr Steele said today that he had tested negative for the virus, and would be declared free of the bug if he passed a further test which was carried out today.
Medics can currently test a maximum of 300 people a day but hope to be expand their capacity to 1,000 per day.
Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) soldiers work in front of the cruise ship Diamond Princess today
The Diamond Princess cruise ship is seen anchored at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port today
Health minister Katsunobu Kato said authorities now want to move elderly people off the ship before the quarantine ends on February 19 if they test negative for the virus.
‘On the ship, there are those of advanced age and with pre-existing conditions,’ he told reporters.
‘There are also those who are having to stay in rooms with no windows until the incubation period finishes.
‘We will conduct… tests for those who are high-risk and if they test negative, those who wish to disembark can go and live in a lodging facility that the government will prepare.
‘We wish to start the operation from tomorrow or later,’ he said.
Questions have been raised about whether the quarantine on the ship is working, with dozens of new cases diagnosed almost daily.
If the Diamond Princess were a country, it would now have the largest number of cases outside mainland China.
British passengers David and Sally Abel told Good Morning Britain today that the spiralling numbers were ‘very worrying’ for those on board.
‘It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been married, couples have been separated,’ said Mr Abel today.
‘Elderly couples, one I understand in their eighties, have been split up. It’s very very worrying for those on board.’
His wife Sally added: ‘We’ve been together 50 years and the thought of one of us being positive and one not and being split is very scary.’
The spread of the virus also has raised concerns about possible impact on the Olympics to be held in Tokyo from July 24.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics President Yoshiro Mori repeated on Thursday that the Games would go ahead as planned.
Japanese military personnel set up a covered walkway next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship where thousands of people are in quarantine
A picture taken by David Abel shows the inside of the Diamond Princess
Kato said five people from the ship are currently in serious condition in hospital, four of whom have tested positive for the virus.
Test results for the fifth are still being processed.
Passengers are confined to cabins and required to wear masks and keep their distance from each other when they are allowed out for brief periods on open decks.
In addition to the cases detected on the ship, Japan has confirmed 28 infections, among them evacuees who were flown back to the country from Hubei.
Four flights have brought back hundreds of evacuees, most of whom have been placed in ‘self-quarantine’ in government-designated hotels.
Evacuees from the first flight, which landed on January 29, were cleared to leave the quarantine on Wednesday night, after testing negative in a final round of checks.
The first evacuees to leave the quarantine departed their hotel in Chiba, east of Tokyo, on Wednesday night, thanking local residents for their solidarity.
More were leaving on Thursday morning, with others who arrived on later flights expected to receive clearance after an additional round of testing.