A SOUTHAMPTON-based ship has been hit by the highly contagious norovirus while on a Christmas Caribbean cruise.

Holidaymakers on board have described the Queen Mary 2 as a “ghost ship” claiming that more than 200 passengers have been struck down with the winter vomiting bug since it left New York just days before Christmas.

But Cunard bosses say that only five per cent of the vessel’s 2,613 passengers have been affected – about 130 – and due to the “rigorous and effective” cleaning measures these numbers have dipped rapidly, with now only 18 with “active symptoms”.

Anxious passengers have told the Daily Echo that the outbreak has left the decks of the luxury liner empty, even on Christmas Day, as holidaymakers were forced to ditch their festive plans in a bid to avoid the illness.

Families planning for months to spend Christmas Day at sea enjoying the ship’s hospitality and festive entertainment were instead holed up in their cabins.

Even the ship’s chaplain had to hand out communion wearing gloves for the Christmas Day service and worshippers were asked not to shake hands.

It comes less than two weeks after passengers complained when more than 400 of them on board P&O’s Oriana cruise ship were struck down by the bug.

The Cunard ship, owned by Southampton-based Carnival UK, is currently on red alert, with precautions to prevent further spread, such as the removal of salt shakers and open butter, and shops unable to sell certain items such as make-up.

There was praise for the glovewearing crew members who passengers say are doing their best to stop the spread, constantly cleaning lifts and hand rails.

Passengers said they were first told about the outbreak the day after sailing from New York on December 22 for the 12-day cruise around the Caribbean, stopping at locations including Dominica, St Lucia and St Kitts.

One passenger, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It is just like a ghost ship at the moment. The mood is very sombre and everybody is just so anxious.

People are staying in their rooms if they are sick and those who aren’t sick are too afraid to leave their rooms. It has ruined our Christmas. It was not the Christmas we paid for and looked forward to for so long.

“It was so very quiet, not the festive mood we anticipated. The crew are trying their best but it just isn’t stopping the spread and as passengers we want more information. It is so nervewracking, always worried that we might be the next to get it.”

The captain is making regular announcements to update passengers, confirming on Wednesday evening that new cases had been reported and urging those with symptoms to report immediately to the medical centre.

Those who are unwell are asked to stay in their cabins and not to proceed ashore, with any shore excursion costs refunded.

A statement from Cunard said: “There has been an incidence of a mild gastrointestinal illness among the passengers on Queen Mary 2. This illness is suspected to be norovirus, which is highly contagious and typically transmitted from person to person.”

It added that “enhanced sanitation protocols” had been employed and that “the safety and comfort of passengers and crew is always our number one priority”.

“As is currently standard procedure across our fleet all the ship’s passengers were provided with a precautionary health notice advising of widespread norovirus activity and the health measures to avoid contraction and spread, both on board and whilst ashore.”

The Queen Mary 2 is scheduled to return to Southampton on January 10.