On Wednesday evening, British Airways announced it was suspending all flights to and from mainland China. In response, Qantas said they were monitoring the situation but for now, services would remain as scheduled.
Health Minister Greg Hunt told all Australians who had travelled to Hubei over the past month to self-isolate and quarantine themselves for 14 days, as a sixth Australian coronavirus case was confirmed in Victoria.
The man, aged in his 60s, tested positive on Wednesday morning. He had been in Wuhan recently and became unwell more than two days after returning to Melbourne.
Diners who ate at The House of Delight restaurant in Glen Waverley on Sunday night, where the man dined, will be contacted, but the restaurant has been declared safe to visit by health authorities.
Members of the man’s family have been quarantined since his positive test.
Mr Morrison said Australians wanting to leave Hubei had to decide quickly if they wanted to board the flight that would take them out of Hubei to Christmas Island detention centre for quarantine. He said infants, the elderly, and others without long-term support in the area would be prioritised.
Consular officials arrived in Wuhan on Wednesday from Shanghai and began the task of assessing which Australians are in the most need of being evacuated.
“I stress there is rather a limited window here and we are moving very, very swiftly to ensure we can put this plan together and put the operation together,” Mr Morrison said. “This will be done on a last in, first out basis.”
There are now more than 6000 cases worldwide of the flu-like disease. Up to 5970 of those have been in China, with 132 deaths. A dozen cities in Hubei province are now in lockdown, isolating 35 million people.
In a series of meetings on Wednesday afternoon, Qantas and the government grappled with the operational hurdles to get the Australians out of the city. Qantas has never flown to Wuhan and it will need to receive clearance from the closed airport to put up to 400 Australians on a Boeing-747 – the largest plane it has available.
The design of Christmas Island’s runway, which is not grooved, also means it can not land on the island with a full passenger load. The airline is considering landing the larger plane at an airport on the Australian mainland and then seeking government co-operation to transfer passengers onto smaller aircraft to the detention centre.
Mr Morrison said he could not guarantee the operation would succeed or that Qantas would be able to make multiple trips.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said those who took the flight would have to consent to going to Christmas Island as part of being transported.
Former Hubei resident Cheng Chen said the Christmas Island quarantine could deter those trapped in Wuhan from seeking help.
“It’s going to be very hard for them to return to normal life. I doubt many people will get on the flight but it depends on how desperate they are,” said the head of the Hubei Association of South Australia.
Mike Yang, who has more than a dozen family members in Wuhan, said the situation was deteriorating on the ground as supplies ran short. He said transferring Australians to Christmas Island could exacerbate a tense set of circumstances.
“They appreciate what the government is doing. People would prefer to be transferred to the mainland but they accept that this might cause concerns and panic among the general public,” he said.
“Even if they could be transferred to a nearer island to the mainland that would help emotionally and mentally.”
Christmas Island resident Philip Tubb feared the detention centre did not have the facilities to cope with hundreds of people being quarantined.
“We are sending a large number of people, some of whom might become seriously ill on a tiny little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that has quite limited medical facilities and putting them behind razor wire,” he said.
“It will involve bringing in a significant amount of medicos and trained nurses here, surely those facilities are already much more available on the mainland.”
ANU Medical School Professor Peter Collignon, an expert in infectious diseases, said it was likely most of the thousands of people with the coronavirus caught it from someone who had symptoms, but that people could have “minimal or no symptoms” and still be able to pass it on.
Professor Collignon said the expanding number of infections meant that the mortality rate was lower than initially feared, but that even a low mortality rate could have serious consequences.
“If you infect a million people, you would still have a lot of people very sick and a lot of people who die,” he said.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.