Coronavirus-hit cruise ship allowed through Panama Canal

A coronavirus-stricken cruise ship stranded off the coast of Panama with more than 200 British nationals on board will be allowed to continue its journey.

Authorities have granted the MS Zaandam permission to pass through the Panama Canal, despite operator Holland America Line reporting more than 130 people with flu-like symptoms on board.

Four "older guests" are confirmed to have died on the ship - although their cause of death has not been given.

The vessel, which was refused entry to a series of ports amid the global pandemic, had attempted the journey to Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

The Zaandam cruise ship, top center, carrying dozens of guests with flu-like symptoms, arrives to the bay of Panama City. Credit: AP

Initially authorities in Panama had said no vessel with confirmed cases could travel through the Panama Canal.

On Saturday, Panama's government announced they would grant those on board "humanitarian aid" and allow the ship to pass through the waterway.

None of the 1,243 passengers on the ship or any members of the 586 crew will be able to disembark on Panamanian soil, the government added.

The ship has been at sea since 14 March when it was refused permission to dock in Chile, where the cruise was due to end in San Antonio one week later.

Holland America Line began transferring healthy passengers to a sister ship docked nearby, the Rotterdam, which has been providing the Zaandam with medical supplies and personnel.

It is not yet known whether the sister ship - the Rotterdam - will also be allowed to pass through the Panama Canal.

Passengers look out from the Zaandam cruise ship. Credit: Arnulfo Franco/AP

The move comes after families of Britons travelling on the vessel called on the UK Government to rescue their relatives - many of whom have been confined to their cabins since Sunday.

Guy Jones told the PA news agency his parents were among some 229 British nationals on the luxury cruise liner.

Nick Jones and Celia Jones, both from Bristol, left the UK for the cruise on 1 March.

Nick and Celia Jones are among over 200 British nationals on board. Credit: Nick Jones/Handout/PA

Their son Guy said: "At that time, this pandemic had not been announced as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.

"Our Foreign Office was still saying that travel to unaffected areas was fine."

His 65-year-old father, who has no known underlying health conditions, said they were "very worried" and wanted the difficulty of the situation to be recognised by authorities.

Panamanian Navy Police navigate near the anchored Zaandam cruise ship. Credit: AP

Mr Jones added: "We're sure that UK citizens on board would welcome some news from a government source to show what action is being taken".

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 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."