Another 88 people aboard a cruise ship off Japan have tested positive for the coronavirus, authorities said Tuesday, as those free of the disease hoped they were spending their last night on board before disembarking.
The new cases take the total from the Diamond Princess to 542 -- easily the biggest cluster outside the epicentre in China -- as the cruise ship has proved an especially virulent breeding ground for the virus despite quarantine.
The new cases will be sent to specialised hospitals, the ministry said in a statement, without giving further details such as their nationalities.
Sixty-five of those who tested positive were not yet showing symptoms.
Britain became the latest country to offer its citizens a way off the boat, saying it was "working to organise a flight back to the UK" as doubts grow over the effectiveness of the quarantine measures with every spike in positive cases.
Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea have already said they will evacuate their citizens from the ship, following the lead from the United States, which flew home around 300 Americans on Monday -- including more than a dozen who had tested positive.
"We have done tests for everyone (on the ship)," Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
"Some results have already come out... and for those whose test results are already clear, we are working to prepare disembarkation," he said.
In a letter sent to passengers, authorities explained that some test results would take time to process and that therefore "we plan the disembarkation to take place from 19 to 21 February".
"If you and your roommate are both negative and have no fever of respiratory symptoms, you will be able to prepare for disembarkation," the letter said.
But those who had close contact with anyone who tested positive will have their quarantine reset to the last date.
The crew, some of whom have complained about conditions on board, are also expected to remain to observe another quarantine period after the last passengers leave the ship.
Japan has been forced to defend its policy amid criticism for the way it handled the situation, with dozens of new infections detected almost daily since the ship arrived in early February.
-Tokyo Marathon affected-
The Americans already evacuated will have to undergo another 14-day quarantine in the United States.
Canada said Tuesday it had arranged a chartered flight to repatriate nationals from the Diamond Princess, but gave no details when it would take place.
There were 256 Canadians on board the ship, with 32 so far testing positive for the virus.
South Korea will send a presidential aircraft on Tuesday to fly back four nationals and one Japanese spouse, an official told reporters.
There are 14 South Koreans on board, but the other ten have declined to be evacuated because they live in Japan, the Yonhap news agency reported.
While foreign governments have couched their decision to remove citizens as an attempt to reduce the burden on Japanese authorities, many have interpreted the evacuations as tacit criticism of Tokyo's handling of the situation.
The US and Australia have told citizens that if they decline repatriation and an additional 14-day quarantine, they will not be allowed home for at least two weeks, suggesting they do not believe the ship-based quarantine worked.
Japan has also confirmed at least 74 cases domestically -- including many involving people with no history of recent travel to China.
Authorities say the virus is now being transmitted locally, and have asked citizens to avoid crowds and non-essential gatherings.
On Monday, the amateur portion of the Tokyo Marathon -- which had been expected to attract some 38,000 runners -- was cancelled. Only elite athletes will now take part.
The public celebration for Emperor Naruhito's birthday has also been scrapped.