As of Saturday evening, Australian officials were confident Qantas would be able to take about 200 passengers from Wuhan to Darwin, where they would be quarantined at a nearby mining camp, but they were still waiting on approval from China.
The plane had been due to fly out on Friday, but got stuck in Hong Kong, waiting for official clearance from China to land in Wuhan.
The Department of Foreign Affairs advised passengers the plane was rescheduled to leave just after midnight on Sunday, local time. In a separate statement it acknowledged flights out of Wuhan required “Chinese government final approval”.
On Saturday evening, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “We continue to work constructively with Chinese authorities and everything is on track for the flight later tonight.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday that everyone coming for quarantine outside of Darwin will have been screened five times.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy also moved to reassure the local community saying: “There is no risk whatsoever in having this quarantine facility here”.
“We are practising the highest possible standards of separation and quarantine,” he said.
On Saturday, Professor Kelly said Australia had recently become aware there were now three cruise ships dealing with the coronavirus.
In Yokohama, there are seven Australians in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus on the Diamond Princess. There are a further 219 Australians who are well and being quarantined on the ship. In Hong Kong, the World Dream has 16 Australians on board, but it is not known if they are affected.
A third ship, the Westerdam, is between Japan and Guam and also now has coronavirus on board. Professor Kelly said it was not known how many people are sick or if there are Australians involved, however, the ABC has reported an Adelaide couple are on the ship.
“Cruise ships are a place where infections can spread quite quickly,” he said. “Anywhere where you have a large number of people in close quarters.”
Frustrated Australian residents, who have been stuck in Hubei waiting to fly to Darwin, spoke of being forced to turn around after negotiating a minefield of roadblocks travelling to Wuhan from their home towns.
Cindy from Yangxin county, three-and-a-half hours from Wuhan, had to turn back from the airport as soon as she arrived on Friday.
Another evacuee, Jimmy from Huanggang, said the pass from the Department of Foreign Affairs that allowed residents to enter was only valid for one day, meaning residents were forced to rush home, because they would not be allowed back through roadblocks.
He said the Australian government was doing its best to deal with a complex set of circumstances and urged others in his WeChat group to be patient.
“Although we have some experience of suffering, especially children, who have been sitting in the car for more than 10 hours, running around to get a pass, checking at every checkpoint, and getting permission to get through, we should still have to maintain a good mentality, which is not only good for ourselves, but also good for such a huge operation of evacuation,” he said via the Chinese social media service.
“Let’s be more inclusive and considerate.”
Worldwide, there were 34,865 cases of coronavirus on Saturday, with 724 deaths. Most of them are in China and most of those in Hubei province.
In Australia there are still 15 cases. Professor Kelly said “none of those are serious”.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra