Coronavirus: Holland America Line ships win ‘humanitarian’ transit of Panama Canal

Holland America Line has won permission for coronavirus-hit cruise ship Zaandam to pass through the Panama Canal.

Confirmation came in a video message via Twitter from the line’s president Orlando Ashford to passengers and crew.

But uncertainty surrounds where Zaandam and sister ship Rotterdam will be allowed to dock in the US.

Both ships were stuck off the coast of Panama at the weekend awaiting permission for the transit of the canal so they could head to Florida for passengers to be flown home on repatriation flights.

Four passengers have died on Zaandam while 53 others and 85 crew were reported with flu-like symptoms. Two tested positive for Covid-19.

Groups of healthy passengers were transferred to the Rotterdam while medical supplies were provided to Zaandam.

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One of the British passengers transfered from Zaandam told Travel Weekly: “They have finished the transfers and we have 800 guests on the Rotterdam and it is now not a regular cruise but a humanitarian rescue mission.

“We have been told we can transit the Panama canal on a humanitarian basis that is why they have granted us permission.”

Almost 230 British passengers were on board Zaandam, which set off from Buenos Aires on March 7 on an itinerary which was due to end in San Antonio in Chile on March 21.

However, the vessel, carrying 1,243 passengers and 586 crew, was barred from various ports in South America since gaining provisions in Valparaiso, Chile, on March 20-21.

HAL hopes both vessels will be able to sail to Fort Lauderdale although it remains unclear if authorities in Florida will allow them to dock.

A spokeswoman for Port Everglades said the line had not yet received approval to enter the port.

“Should Holland America receive approval to transit the Panama Canal, it would take about three days for the ship to reach South Florida,” she added.

“Holland America must then submit a plan prior to arrival that addresses a long list of unified command requirements for entry into a port.”

However, Ashford confirmed that both ships had gained permission to enter the Panama Canal to allow them to head east towards Florida “and safety”.

He said: “We know this has been a bumpy road, a bumpy ride but you guys have been great in terms of being supportive of the crew, being supportive of one another and working with us so we can get both ships, the Rotterdam and the Zaandam, with all of our guests, appropriately distributed across the two ships and in a situation where they continue to be safely isolated and that we can make our way through the canal and make our way towards the next part of our journey, which is getting to a place where you can now make your way home.”

Ashford did not specify where the final destination for the two ships would be.

Instead, he added that “much more details” would be made available shortly in terms of the exact timings.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are doing all we can to help British people on board the Zaandam cruise ship.

“Our staff are in close contact with the cruise operator and the authorities in the region to ensure British people can get home safely.”

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab is reportedly poised to announce plans for commercial and charter flights to repatriate up to one million Britons stranded overseas.

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