The Diamond Princess’s cruise of southeast Asia was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — but not in the way any of the passengers had been expecting. Many on board had booked the 29-night voyage from Singapore to Japan via Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and landmark birthdays. The ship, a sparkling white 18-storey gin palace, was the “jewel of the sea”, according to its brochure. Guests would be able to dine in black tie at the captain’s table, soak in a Japanese “onsen” bath, swim in freshwater pools and drink from champagne fountains. “It’s effectively a five-star hotel,” says Alan Sandford, a retired teacher from Nottingham who joined the cruise with his wife, Vanessa, for his 65th birthday.

The Diamond Princess set sail from Singapore on January 6 with 1,041 crew and 2,589 passengers mainly from Europe, America and Asia. On board were 77 Britons, including the Sandfords and Elaine and John Spencer from Kent, who were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. Joining the ship in Yokohama on January 20 for a 14-night “lunar new year” cruise were David and Sally Abel, a couple from Northamptonshire celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and Gay Courter, a 75-year-old American who had written a novel called The Girl in the Box — a medical mystery set on a cruise ship, which she had researched on the Diamond Princess.

Rough Seas Ahead

Cruising is contagious. The passengers I spoke to were cruise junkies. The Sandfords were on their 10th cruise, Elaine Spencer on her third, Gay Courter on her 10th voyage with Princess Cruises. “We drank the Kool-Aid,” Gay says. Alan Sandford’s only concern was the length of this trip. “We had never been away for so long before,” he says. “Little did we know …”

Just over a month later, on February 20, the World Health Organisation would announce that the Diamond Princess had more cases of Covid-19 than anywhere outside China. In total the ship would confirm 712 cases and, to date, 14 deaths. The jewel of the sea became known as the “corona plague ship”. Here was an early warning of just how fast this new virus could spread, particularly in “closed” populations. Weeks before the rest of the world locked down, analysis of this floating petri dish showed how asymptomatic carriers could increase transmission, how the virus could survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours and how PPE, testing and tracking would all be vital in tackling the disease. Some countries took note. Others did not.

Long before then the ship sailed untroubled towards its first port of call, Ho Chi Minh City, and the Sandfords settled into their balcony suite on deck 11. They swam in the pools, hit the gym and dined in buffet restaurants. They were barely aware of reports emerging about a highly infectious flu-like illness causing havoc in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Elaine Spencer, 54, flitted between breakfast buffets, pools and craft lessons. She watched the Born to Be Wild rock show and joined the Princess pop choir, rehearsing British and Japanese songs. Elaine’s cabin was on deck 12, deep in the ship, and had no windows. “I did have some misgivings about being on the ship for so long, but I thought I’d be out and about,” she says.

At first she was right. When the ship stopped at Nha Trang, on Vietnam’s east coast, Elaine braved a pedicab around town — “quite scary but good fun” — before exploring the ancient city of Hoi An.

In total the ship would confirm 712 cases and, to date, 14 deaths. The jewel of the sea became known as the “corona plague ship.”

When the ship stopped in Hong Kong on January 12, the Sandfords went ashore and strolled along the harbour promenade. That evening Vanessa Sandford had a cough. Two days later, as they sailed to Taiwan, she saw one of the ship’s doctors. He took her temperature, diagnosed an acute unspecified lower-respiratory infection and prescribed antibiotics and decongestant cough medicine. “He told us it was nothing to worry about,” her husband says. How early the virus was circulating on board undetected remains unclear.

Over the next fortnight they sailed to Taipei, exploring Yehliu Geopark, and on to Japan, visiting Kyoto with its glimmering Golden Pavilion. There was a day trip to Mount Fuji before more passengers boarded at Yokohama and the ship returned to Hong Kong. “In all that time,” Alan says, “no one mentioned the virus.”

Masked passengers look out from the Diamond Princess during the ship’s quarantine, in Yokohama Port.

On January 25 passengers were disappointed to hear that Hong Kong’s new year celebrations were cancelled because of political protests and concerns over something called the “Wuhan virus”. They thought little of it. On board the Diamond Princess the party went on. Red lanterns were hung on the ship’s glittering three-floor atrium and hundreds of passengers squeezed on to balconies to watch a Chinese dragon dance across the white marble floor. That same day an 80-year-old Hong Kong resident with a cough disembarked. Diamond Princess executives were notified on February 1 when he tested positive for Covid-19. Passengers claim it took a further two days before they were told.

Certainly they were oblivious when the ship docked on the Japanese tropical island of Okinawa on February 1. Several told me they were shocked when immigration officials ordered all 3,711 passengers and crew to disembark for health checks, but it wasn’t enough to cause panic. “You do feel like you’re in your own little bubble on the ship,” Alan says. They had “barely heard of the virus” at this point.

Behind the scenes things were unlikely to have been so relaxed. “It would have been a huge deal when they heard someone on board had the coronavirus,” says a cruise ship doctor who asked to remain anonymous. “Every ship’s medical team knows that infection spreads like wildfire on board. It is hard to control when you have thousands of people contained in a metal box.”

The doctor says there would usually be “two doctors and four nurses on board, in a medical centre with five beds, one ventilator and a morgue that fits two or three bodies”. Princess Cruises, which operates the Diamond Princess, declined to confirm this.

Here was an early warning of just how fast this new virus could spread, particularly in “closed” populations.

“The average cruise passenger can be well into their seventies, so deaths on board are not uncommon,” the doctor explains. Communicable diseases are also “part and parcel of cruising. Everyone is eating and sleeping in a confined space. Once the spread starts, it is very difficult to control. The usual solution to any serious medical issue on board is to land passengers.”

Cruise line officials claim crew began cleaning public areas more frequently, switching buffet utensils and offering extra hand sanitiser. The passengers I spoke to didn’t notice. Elaine, who works as an infection inspector, says: “I don’t remember anything changed.” Alan agrees. “Everything carried on as before,” he says. “Although a few people on the ship did have masks.”

On February 3, as the ship sped from Okinawa to Yokohama, Gennaro Arma, 45, the ship’s captain, told passengers they would be docking early at the request of the Japanese health authorities. Once again passengers carried on as normal. Alan went to the Princess Theatre to watch a Filipino jazz singer. Elaine met friends at the buffet and played cards. “We were still out and about, mixing with everyone,” she says. That day her choir performed in the gold-lit atrium. Accompanied by a jazz keyboard player, they belted out their big number, Oh, What a Night. And it certainly was — Elaine remembers “the exact moment I first heard the word ‘coronavirus’ “. At 6pm the captain informed guests that a former passenger had tested positive. He then told everyone to return to their cabins to await health tests by Japanese medical personnel.

Just after midnight Elaine heard a knock on her cabin door and hopped out of bed to find two men in hazmat suits, masks, gloves and goggles. Alan got a knock at 3.30am. “That was quite a shock,” he says. But still he wasn’t worried. “We thought it was an isolated case.”

On January 25 passengers were disappointed to hear that Hong Kong’s new year celebrations were cancelled because of political protests and concerns over something called the “Wuhan virus.”

With excursions cancelled, the ship’s entertainment team compiled an itinerary of on-board activities to keep guests distracted: a bean bag toss at 9.15am on deck 5, a Bollywood dance class on deck 7, an outdoor screening of Aladdin on deck 14. “In hindsight,” says Gay Courter, “that was a huge mistake.”

Alan had breakfast with four friends and then went to the gym. That evening at dinner he was surprised to find his waiter, Jeffrey, concerned about the virus. “He has family who depend on him,” he reasoned. Elaine says it wasn’t until the next day, February 5, that “things got real”. She was having breakfast at 6am when the captain ordered guests back to their rooms. Ten people had been taken off the ship after testing positive for the virus, he explained. Everyone else would have to remain quarantined in their cabins for the next 14 days.

With passengers confined to their cabins, medical personnel went room to room to test them.

On deck 12 Gay walked out to her balcony overlooking Yokohama port to find it teeming with military vehicles, ambulances and people in hazmat suits. Satellite trucks from the world’s media were also setting up. “It looked as though we’d just landed in a pandemic B-movie,” she says. “Definitely. Not. OK.” Next morning the captain announced another 10 cases.

With guests stuck in their rooms, cruise directors provided free internet and online entertainment. The magician taught card tricks and a big cuddly bear read bedtime stories to children. Adults were sent playing cards, children got toys. Passengers were also issued with thermometers and told to contact the ship’s medics if their temperature went over 99.5F.

On the other side of the ship Alan relaxed on his balcony looking out to sea, ordered a bottle of wine and settled into another week of holiday. From his mini-suite David Abel started a video diary.

The World Is Watching

Trapped in Yokohama, Tokyo Bay, the Diamond Princess quickly became a global news story. Back then, seven weeks before the UK implemented its lockdown, the ship’s plight seemed unique — the first community outside China with a significant Covid-19 outbreak. The world watched with alarm and fascination as the ship’s number of cases were reported daily as though it were a country. By day six of the quarantine there were 135 cases. By day seven, 174. By day nine, 218.

The Abels relished the fame as thousands tuned in to their YouTube channel for updates. Along with other ship captives, they gave interviews to news channels around the world. As #Hangintherediamondprincess trended, businesses began sending gifts. Jet-skiers performed stunts in the water around the ship and passengers thanked them by sending a Mexican wave rippling down the balconies. “It wasn’t all doom and gloom, particularly in the first week of quarantine,” Alan says. He made entertaining videos of himself taking hikes around his cabin and washing his underpants in the sink.

Cooped up in her windowless cabin, Elaine was not faring so well. She and John “tried to have some sort of routine to make things easier”. Each morning they would run on the spot for 30 minutes. In the evenings they would call friends in England. But at night Elaine could hear coughing and crying through the thin walls.

Elaine heard a knock on her cabin door and hopped out of bed to find two men in hazmat suits, masks, gloves and goggles.

It took several days for Captain Arma to negotiate with Japanese authorities to allow those in inside cabins to take a 45-minute walk on deck. Elaine waited three days before going outside into the freezing midnight air. It felt “surreal” and “frightening”, walking past people in masks, some coughing, as helicopters circled overhead. She says testing seemed erratic. Only those with symptoms appeared to be tested. Sometimes even those who had shared cabins with positive patients weren’t tested themselves. Worried passengers shared updates on social media, often gleaning more information from reporters than from the captain’s announcements. A banner hung from a balcony complained of a “serious lack of medicine, lack of information”.

Princess Cruises says the Japanese health ministry assumed authority over the ship “for the entire duration of the quarantine … defining and executing the testing and quarantine protocols for all guests and crew on Diamond Princess”.

“You’ve got no idea of the pressure on board a ship when you are confined to the cabin like this,” David Abel told Sky News. “Every time there is a knock on the door your stomach flips,” added his wife, Sally. Elaine spent Valentine’s Day watching Monty Python sketches. She felt “abandoned” by the British government, from which she’d heard nothing despite repeated requests for assistance.

The captain’s “mellifluous, Italian, sexy voice”, which was broadcast into guests’ rooms, was a balm, says Gay. “I had a little Stockholm syndrome.” Arma read poems, wished guests “Bon appétit”, joked his hair was turning grey and repeated the motto that only by undergoing pressure is coal transformed into diamond. “We always knew when he was going to give us bad news because he gave us positive things first and then at the end he’d tell us how many cases there were,” Elaine says. “I’m surprised he didn’t go away and shoot himself, the amount of bad news he had to give us.”

In the evenings they would call friends in England. But at night Elaine could hear coughing and crying through the thin walls.

By February 16, 355 of those on board had tested positive. “We were all keeping tallies,” Gay says. “It just kept growing exponentially until they stopped telling us. There is no way to explain how terrifying that is. How the hell are we getting sick? We’re not leaving our room — was it coming through the air-conditioning?” (Later analysis of the ship’s air-conditioning found no obvious sign that it had exacerbated virus transmission.)

Food was delivered by room service. Breakfast would consist of boiled eggs and yoghurt, dinner was three courses — smoked salmon, for example, beef stew and vegetable gratin. But Elaine soon noticed that the regular silverware and plates were abandoned for disposable cutlery and plastic boxes. “Were the plates contaminated?” she wonders. “We were very conscious of the trays coming in and the handles. We were wiping those as well.” She heard staff coughing in the corridor “as they delivered our food”.

Emergency workers in protective clothing exit the Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku Pier, in Yokohama. At the time, 130 passengers were already infected, and it was the largest number of cases outside of China.

Later a report by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention noted in the early stages of the outbreak that three-quarters of infected crew members were food-service workers. “The quarantine worked for the passengers, but unfortunately it did not work for the crew,” concluded Yuguo Li, a professor of public health from Hong Kong University. A report published in the Infectious Disease Modelling journal states that infection “fell substantially” among passengers after February 5, but the virus continued to spread among the crew.

By February 16, 355 of those on board had tested positive.

Restaurant staff delivered three meals a day to 1,337 cabins. Other crew members took new jobs dispensing medicine and helping the sick. Saqnaz Rayi Siwi, a 23-year-old from Indonesia, was a waitress in the ship’s Horizon Court buffet. It was her “dream job … to travel around the world without spending a lot of money”. While passengers were in quarantine, Saqnaz continued to work from breakfast through to dinner.

“At that time the captain announced that we must start to social distance,” she says. “But it was difficult to implement because we all had to work together in the same environment, eating together.” The crew slept on decks 2 and 3, along cramped corridors in bunk bed cabins, sharing a canteen. Saqnaz says she was “afraid every day”, but “I still had to work”. Arma called these frontline workers “my gladiators”.

Only crew who showed symptoms were relieved of their duties, isolated and tested. If they tested positive they were taken to a local hospital. The rest carried on cleaning the ship, doing the laundry and helping sick guests, sometimes without PPE. Princess Cruises notes that this was “following direction from the Japan Ministry of Health on PPE usage”. A Japanese epidemiologist later criticised conditions on board as “completely chaotic”. Other reports highlighted the failure of Japanese medical staff to wear full protective gear. One Japanese quarantine officer caught the coronavirus after going from cabin to cabin delivering health questionnaires.

At home in the UK the Abels’s son Steve joined those begging the British government to bring home its citizens aboard the Diamond Princess. On February 18 the Abels tested positive for Covid-19. Three days later they were transferred to a Japanese hospital, where David’s health rapidly declined. An x-ray of his lungs revealed the shadow of acute pneumonia. His wife, Sally, sat up all night watching him breathe, worried she might lose him. It would be almost another month, on March 14, before they would finally return home, recovered.

On February 22 Elaine boarded a repatriation flight. “I felt tearful when I left that cabin,” she says. She walked free wearing a paper mask and blue plastic gloves. Her plane home carried 31 European passengers. They were not told to maintain social distancing. Four Britons on the flight would later test positive for the virus.

From Boscombe Down airport the cruise passengers were driven under police escort to the Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral for another fortnight’s quarantine. In self-contained nurses’ flats, with British news on the television and daily outside exercise slots, guests joked it was like Butlin’s. “It was a lot more comfortable, far more relaxed,” Alan Sandford says. “They really looked after us.” On March 8 he and his wife were allowed to get a taxi home. As the driver eyed them nervously, Alan smiled and told him: “I should be more nervous of you. There’s more chance that you’ve got it.” Two days earlier, Britain had announced its first Covid-19 death.

On dry land: Captain Gennaro Arma is the last to leave the ship.

Despite watching events on the Diamond Princess unfold, Britain carried on as normal. There was no lockdown and no enforced social distancing. We continued to dine out, drink out and attend large events until the government eventually initiated lockdown on March 23.

Alan found himself contained once again. “Quarantine on board the ship is different to isolation at home,” he says. “Isolation is not as easy. In quarantine you are under very strict restrictions, but everything is done for you and you are all in it together. Now we are all in it together, but having to cope separately.”

After guests departed, the crew’s quarantine began. Saqnaz continued working, serving food to other staff. She was quarantined until March 1. Arma was the last person to disembark. “Abandoning my ship was never an option,” he tells me. He sees the crew as his family and still speaks fondly of the Diamond Princess. “She has challenged me quite a few times, but I always sensed that she was there for me.” He says the ship became his “silent partner during the quarantine … It’s like she knew when to push me to become a better captain, and when to work with me when I needed her help. Before I left her, I told her that it wasn’t her fault and thanked her for being so brave and for her beautiful soul.”

As of mid-May, about 100,000 crew were still stranded at sea on cruise ships due to the coronavirus.

Passengers from the Diamond Princess were given full refunds and offered another cruise for free. “I’m considering it,” Elaine says, “though it would have to have a balcony.”