An elderly Northland couple stranded on a cruise ship north of Italy during a trans-Atlantic trip with a plea for government help to return home were expected to fly out of Rome last night.

John and Pat Trotman were among 2359 guests aboard the Costa Pacifica that left Argentina on March 2 bound for Europe but found themselves trapped as the coronavirus spread across Italy and other neighbouring countries.

The number of people dying of Covid-19 in Italy has surpassed China's total and the Trotmans' son Antony Lydiard said his concern was the cruise ship seemed to be taking people off by nationality.

John Trotman, 80, has multiple sclerosis and heart conditions and Lydiard said his father, as well as his mum, aged 75, were both susceptible to flu-like viruses especially in a high-risk country.

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"Apparently they'll be leaving tonight (Monday) but there's no return ticket and all that could change. We'd like them to fly from Rome to London but with flights being cancelled left, right, and centre nothing is guaranteed."

He said one-way flights per person cost 10,000 Euros at present.

Some passengers were due to leave the Costa Pacifica, operated by Italian firm Costa Cruises, in Barcelona but the port was closed due to travel restrictions.

They were told they could get off at the next port, Marseille, but only French nationals were allowed to disembark before the ship was told it must sail to coronavirus-stricken Italy where all passengers were required to get off.

"Our worry is dad has MS and heart conditions and if he catches the coronavirus, it will be like a death sentence. The New Zealand Consular people have spoken to mum and dad but there's very little coming by way of help to get them out," Lydiard said.

The Trotmans are pleading with the New Zealand government to help get them out of coronavirus-stricken Italy. Photo / Supplied
The Trotmans are pleading with the New Zealand government to help get them out of coronavirus-stricken Italy. Photo / Supplied

The Trotmans left New Zealand in February and cruised around South America, including Rio, on board the Norwegian Star before embarking on their Europe journey.

They were supposed to get off in Marseilles and do a river cruise.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said its embassy in Rome was in close contact with affected Kiwis and that consular assistance was being provided.

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He said MFAT staff in Wellington and around the world were responding to unprecedented numbers of enquiries from New Zealanders facing global travel disruptions.

The Government, he said, was exploring all possible options to help New Zealand travellers overseas, including the feasibility of assisted departures but there were no guarantees this would be possible.

Travelling New Zealanders are requested to register their details on SafeTravel, which allows MFAT to contact them with the most current advice.

There are more than 23,000 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel, of which more than 10,000 say they are living overseas rather than travelling.