Almost 300 Australians in the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan have this morning boarded an evacuation flight that will take them to Christmas Island via Western Australia.
- The Qantas 747 will first fly to Exmouth in Western Australia
- The evacuees will then spend two weeks at the Christmas Island immigration detention centre
- Australia has barred Chinese citizens and travellers from China from entering the country
The Qantas 747, which is expected to arrive in Exmouth later today, is the first of two flights that will take several hundred Australian citizens and permanent residents out of the locked-down city.
The flight, which landed in Wuhan at 1:10am (local time) via Hong Kong, was expected to depart earlier this morning but has been delayed.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said about 270 people as well as 14 crew, four pilots and officials from the Department of Health were onboard.
“The aircraft is currently on the ground in Wuhan,” Mr Joyce told the ABC’s RN breakfast program this morning.
“Its bags have been loaded, it’s been refuelled and we are in the process of boarding the passengers so hopefully the aircraft will take off in the next couple of hours.”
Some have declined the evacuation, choosing to wait things out, but others have overcome fears about the indirect route home.
Sydney mother of three Gloria Zeng was hesitant to leave because of concerns about staying at the immigration detention centre, instead of being quarantined somewhere on the mainland.
But Ms Zeng changed her mind on the day of the flight.
“I got a lot of pressure from my husband. He said the situation is not very good, all the other countries have started to close the borders,” she told ABC.
“He said if we stay over here, it would probably take a couple of months to get out of Wuhan, so he started to get really nervous.”
Ms Zeng said getting to the airport was smooth because Australian officials helped organise passes to get through roadblocks in Wuhan, but getting three small children to wear their masks in the middle of an epidemic was not easy.
“It looks like now the kids are exposed to germs everywhere,” she said.
“I’m really nervous. It’s out of control. It will be a long journey.”
The death toll from has now reached 305, with 14,637 confirmed cases — including 12 so far in Australia.
On Sunday, the Philippines reported the first death related to coronavirus outside of China.
‘Everyone’s staying indoors’
The Qantas 747 will first fly to Exmouth in Western Australia, where the evacuees will transfer at RAAF Base Learmonth to smaller charter flights that will take four hours to reach Christmas Island.
Mr Alan said the 747 was too large to land on Christmas Island due to operational runway restrictions.
They will then spend two weeks at the almost empty immigration detention centre with a team of doctors and nurses, before being flown to Perth, assuming they show no signs of having novel coronavirus.
Mr Alan said the volunteer crew members would be sealed on an upper deck for most of the flight.
“They are there for safety requirements, ie managing doors on departure and arrival,” he said, adding they were all given gloves and medical-grade masks.
Mr Alan said he was “proud” of the crew members who volunteered for the flight.
“They are inspirational because they have done this to help Australians in need,” he told the ABC.
“There are a lot of children and elderly passengers onboard. We needed to get them out of Wuhan.”
Moko Yang, an Australian citizen in Wuhan who is planning to take the second evacuation flight in the coming days, said staying in the locked-down city was not really an option.
“If you stay here, say you need to buy food, you’re only able to ride a share-bike to the supermarket,” he said.
“Everyone’s staying indoors. The streets are quiet. There are parts of the city with a high number of infection cases that are blocked off too.”
Finding an alternative way home also looks increasingly difficult.
Australia joined the US and Singapore over the weekend in barring Chinese citizens from entering the country, along with travellers who had recently been to China.
Australian citizens or those with Australian spouses or families can still fly home, but Qantas will soon join a growing list of international airlines to suspend flights in and out of China.
New South Wales Health said more than 1,000 passengers who flew into Sydney from mainland China on Sunday were tested for coronavirus.
The number of people being tested is increasing and authorities are asking anyone returning from China, not just the Hubei province, to isolate themselves for 14 days.
New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant said of those tested so far, only seven cases had been referred on for further assessment.
“It is in all likelihood those patients will have other causes for their mild respiratory symptoms,” she said.
“We’re taking a very precautionary approach because we know that this virus has a broad presentation in terms from milder disease to more severe disease, so we’ll have the results back on those individuals later today.”
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