Curse of P&O strikes as virus hits 200 passengers

The passengers returning to their luxury cruise after a sightseeing stop at Lisbon were in for some bad news. Just two days out of its home port of Southampton, the ship's captain was to inform them that there had been an outbreak of the contagious and debilitating norovirus on board P&O's £165m cruise liner Oceana.

The passengers returning to their luxury cruise after a sightseeing stop at Lisbon were in for some bad news. Just two days out of its home port of Southampton, the ship's captain was to inform them that there had been an outbreak of the contagious and debilitating norovirus on board P&O's £165m cruise liner Oceana.

Within hours more than 200 people - one in ten of those on board - were confined to their cabins, stricken with symptoms of nausea, headache and vomiting.

For P&O, which endured days of damaging headlines earlier this year and a £26m bill when its flagship Aurora was reduced by engine trouble to circling the Isle of Wight instead of embarking on a round-the-world trip, the situation evoked painful memories. Two years earlier the Aurora was dubbed "plague ship" by the media when a similar outbreak struck passengers.

Yesterday, however, P&O insisted that the worst of the outbreak was over. "We hope we have this under control. We are seeing a significant downward curve," said a spokeswoman. By the afternoon the number of passengers suffering symptoms was reduced to 50 and falling, she said. It is believed the mild form of gastro-enteritis was brought on board by a passenger at Southampton. There are currently outbreaks within the UK, the company said. Norovirus, formerly known as norwalk virus, is spread by human-to-human contact, and thrives within the close quarters of a ship. While almost never fatal, it produces debilitating though short-lived symptoms. Those affected remain infectious for two days.

Sufferers on board the Oceana were asked by the ship's doctor to confine themselves to their cabins, for which they can expect to receive compensation from P&O for each day of their isolation. Meanwhile, the crew set to work on an "extensive programme" of cleansing and disinfecting around the 77,000-ton vessel. This meant checking dishwashers and cleaning handrails, slot machines and gym equipment.

The sick were given bottled water to prevent dehydration and everyone on board was given an advisory leaflet describing the symptoms and what they should do if they have them.

The Oceana was playing host to 2,015 passengers, some of whom had paid up to £5,000 for the 17-day cruise around the Mediterranean. Within the opulent confines of the ship, holidaymakers had been looking forward to evenings of cabaret entertainment and fine dining. The five-year-old ship was in Portugal on the first stop of the cruise and is now carrying on with its planned itinerary, stopping at Dubrovnik next, and taking in Palma, Sardinia, Naples, Rome, Corfu and Malaga before returning to Southampton on 5 June.

A spokeswoman for P&O said that research had shown up to 1.5 million Britons contract the norovirus each year. The chances of catching it on land are one in 12 compared to one in 4,000 on a cruise.

Carnival Corporation, which owns P&O, revealed the financial damage caused by the Aurora debacle. Engineering problems meant the ship was out of action for longer than had initially been feared. In addition, Carnival was forced to provide a full refund to its 1,700 passengers, as well as a 25 per cent discount on the price of the next cruise.

Cruises all at sea

* November 2003: More than 500 passengers on board the Aurora contract the norovirus. Passengers are refused the right to disembark by the authorities in Greece.

* January 2005: P&O forced to abandon 103-day world cruise after engine trouble on board the Aurora. Passengers enjoy extra entertainment and a free bar as they spend 11 days sailing around the Isle of Wight.

* February 2005: Carnival admits that the Aurora fiasco has cost the company $48m.

* May 2005: More than 1,000 cruise passengers have to abandon their holiday because toilets on board the Thomson Celebration fail to flush.

* May 2005: Some 200 passengers on board P&O's Oceana contract the norovirus.

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