“We are working with Chinese authorities in order to reschedule the flight for tomorrow.”
DFAT noted that the unexpected delay “will cause stress and inconvenience, which we regret.”
Earlier, the chief medical officer declared the Christmas Island quarantine site full after a military flight with Australian residents rescued by Air New Zeland arrived on Thursday, taking the total number to 276 in the offshore detention centre.
More than 200 Australians now awaiting Qantas flight 6032 will be taken to the Inpex Howard Springs mining camp site, 30 kilometres outside of Darwin, which has the capacity to house 3500 people.
The contingency plan has been activated as the infection rate of the flu-like disease surges, increasing by 20 per cent a day in China – particularly in Hubei province – where the government of Wuhan has ordered the temperature of 11 million people be taken in the city as it converts stadiums into hospitals.
There are more than 30,877 confirmed infections – triple the number of severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] patients in 2003. At 636 deaths it set to overtake the number of SARS victims within days. Fifteen cases have been confirmed in Australia, with three recoveries.
Meanwhile, more than 230 Australians are likely to remain trapped in quarantine for a fortnight on a cruise ship with 3464 other passengers in Yokohama, Japan. Seven Australians have been diagnosed with the virus out of 61 confirmed cases on the ship.
Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said the economic risks of the health crisis were now greater than SARS as companies claim force majeure, close stores, and supply chains fail in a country that accounts for 18 per cent of the global economy.
“The potential risk to the Australian economy is bigger than SARS and none of us know how this is going to play out,” he said.
In Australia, universities are considering quarantining or asking students from China to self-isolate in student accommodation or regional campuses, as the health risks threaten to throw the start of the academic year into chaos for more than 100,000 students.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australians in mainland China outside of Hubei province to leave the country and warned Qantas may not be able to get back into Wuhan to rescue those left-behind.
“The government cannot guarantee that similar types of assisted flights would be able to be put on in the future either into the mainland or Wuhan,” he said.
Qantas was forced to cancel a return flight between Sydney and Beijing on Friday due to cabin crew illness. Four of the nine cabin crew due to operate the flight from the airline’s home base of Sydney called in sick.
Once they arrive, the Darwin evacuees will land at dawn and become the first to be put into a mass quarantine on the Australian mainland since the Spanish flu in 1919.
They will be separated into families for two weeks and housed at the Howard Springs Manigurr-ma worker accommodation village owned by Japanese gas mining giant Inpex, built to accommodate fly-in-fly-out workers until 2018. The facility has swimming, cycling, beach volleyball and indoor cricket facilities and a medical centre.
Bon Lee, who owns his own physiotherapy business in Sydney, travelled for more than three hours through road blocks and checkpoints across Hubei province to reach the delayed flight.
“I was happy to go any where the government has deemed safe for quarantine – but Darwin is definitely a better option [than Christmas Island]. Anyone would prefer that,” he said.
Early on Friday, DFAT told passengers in an email that the number of people wanting to secure their return to Australia “is far more than there are seats available” on the flight.
Melbourne photographer Moko Yong was one of those to miss out on the delayed flight.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “This is very disappointing. As an Australian citizen, the government has the responsibility to to take back every Australian who wants to evacuate and has the ability to go to the airport.”
The frustration comes as anger grows within Hubei over the government’s handling of the crisis. Chinese citizens lashed out on social media site Weibo over the death of Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who first tried to alert medical workers to the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr Li was ordered to stop spreading rumours by authorities in December, before the virus locked down 60 million people across a dozen cities. His pregnant wife and parents are also reportedly infected with the virus.
Thousands of Weibo users re-posted a quote from Dr Li in response to the Communist Party’s attempts to crackdown on fears the virus was spreading.
“A healthy society should not have only one voice,” they 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.