England players' families Covid fears after 'tests refused' on cruise ship

MSC World Europa cruise ship in Doha - AFP
MSC World Europa cruise ship in Doha - AFP

The cruise ship hosting England players' families sparked a health alert after potential Covid-19 patients claimed they were refused tests on board due to Qatar Government rules.

Wives, girlfields and relatives of the players all left the MSC World Europa, Telegraph Sport understands, although the testing regime was not cited as one of the main factors.

Several worried guests among the 6,000 on board claim that they were refused tests on board the MSC World Europa. Passengers claimed they were told the orders came from Qatar.

Sources close to Government in Doha denied the suggestion they were ordering the boat not to test, although an independent insider confirmed potential infections were being directed to a mainland testing site.

Fortunately, the Football Association had already taken matters into their own hands to test family members ahead of meetings with the England players, who are in a strict bubble.

But public health experts expressed major concern at the arrangements given the close proximity for passengers from around the world.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a former president of the epidemiology and public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: "Ships pose particular issues when it comes to spreading infectious disease."

A spokesman for MSC Cruises denied the suggestion from passengers that their welfare was being compromised. "There is absolutely no test ban on board any of our ships in Doha," the company added. "For perspective, the same Covid and more generally health and safety protocols that apply to every hotel, stadium, airport, etc. in Qatar also apply on board MSC World Europa."

However, Scally, a leading Independent Sage member, argues passengers should not have been forced to head to mainland, when they would potentially be spreading the virus, to get tested. "Accommodation is often cramped and often without openable windows," he said of the public health risk on board. "Areas used to socialise can be crowded. The ability to test people to identify people who have live infections is useful if those testing positive can be isolated until the infectious period is over. Trying to control Covid without testing is like fighting a fire with one hand tied behind your back."

The FA declined to comment on the situation. Family members left the ship on Wednesday after being given the option to switch to hotels. The reason they had been on the boat in the first place was because of a perceived shortage of hotels when England first qualified.

However, the general Covid risk, security and the ease of getting to games are understood to have been among factors in deciding to move to hotels in Doha. Access to Covid tests on request was seen by one passenger as being of particular importance given the first major surge of infections in Europe in 2020 came after an outbreak on the Diamond Princess.

MSC was unable to track down specific cases of doctors directing patients to the mainland. But in a statement the company added: "It should however be noted that guests on board our ships serving as floating hotels there have access 24/7 to an on board state-of-the-art medical facility with doctors and other medical staff ready to provide attention and support whenever needed. Thanks to this, guests with Covid symptoms can visit the medical centre where our team can and will carry out Covid tests whenever appropriate."

A source close to MSC later insisted that family members of the England squad left as they "had only booked up until their date of departure and we did not have any accommodation left for them to be able to extend their stays". "The vessel has been completely booked out for some time," the source added as he refuted claims from other insiders that the families had taken it upon themselves to move to hotels on land.

The FA has employed extremely strict Covid protocols to ensure there are no outbreaks within the squad. Journalists are required to wear masks at press conferences with the players. With such strict rules in place, there was inevitable nervousness for some relatives about coming into close proximity on the ship, which is worth £1billion.

Relatives had done their utmost to remain in a "bubble" on the ship, which has 22 decks and a promenade measuring 104 metres long. A five-star stay reportedly costs upwards of £6,000.

Public health specialists speculated that the ship's current Covid testing policy may be to emphasise public responsibility because they "don't want the tournament to be overrun by a huge outbreak". Dr John Ashton, a former director of public health for the north-west, added: "We know that close environments like cruise ships are very risky and one would expect the authorities to be right on top to ensure available testing, isolation and support if there are cases on board."