Australians who had been due to leave Wuhan on Friday night remain stranded in the city where the coronavirus outbreak began after the flight was delayed until at least Saturday.
The second Qantas coronavirus evacuation flight had been scheduled to fly overnight on Friday from locked down Wuhan to a quarantine site outside of Darwin.
But as they waited to board on Friday passengers were informed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that the flight had been delayed because Australia had “not received official clearance” from Chinese authorities to land in the city.
“You should return to your homes or places of accommodation and we will send you more information when it is available,” am email sent to passengers from Dfat read.
“We are working with Chinese authorities in order to reschedule the flight for tomorrow.
“As you had a previously confirmed seat/s on the aircraft this evening, your seat is confirmed for the next flight departing Wuhan which we anticipate will depart on Saturday February 8.
“We know that this unexpected delay will cause stress and inconvenience, which we regret.”
In a statement Dfat confirmed the flight had been “prepositioned” in Hong Kong and was “awaiting approval from the Chinese authorities to fly to Wuhan”.
“Many flights out of Wuhan have been delayed. We are engaging closely with the Chinese authorities to ensure our flight can proceed as soon as possible,” the statement said.
“We are in contact with all passengers on the manifest about the status of the flight.
“The assisted departure is a complex operation under difficult circumstances. Any such departure is always subject to operational requirements and to Chinese government final approval.”
Scott Morrison confirmed on Friday that a vacated former construction workers’ village outside Darwin would be used as the quarantine site for the evacuees. More than 300 Australians remain trapped in Wuhan – which has been quarantined by Chinese authorities – and the flight was expected to be the last out of the city that the Australian government would be able to charter.
Globally, the outbreak has infected more than 31,000 people and killed 636, the vast majority of those in Hubei province.
The first Qantas flight evacuated 243 Australian citizens and permanent residents to Christmas Island on Monday. Thirty-six Australians who left Wuhan on a NZ-government chartered flight on Wednesday were also eventually taken to Christmas Island.
The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, declared the Christmas Island quarantine site full after the arrival of that flight. The centre can house more than 1,000 people, but the capacity of the centre is significantly reduced because of the medical necessity to isolate coronavirus evacuees from each other to minimise the impact of any possible outbreak.
The Manigurr-ma village, 30km outside Darwin, was built in 2012 by Japanese energy giant Inpex as accommodation for its workers. At the peak of construction work on Inpex’s $55bn gas plant on Darwin Harbour it housed around 3,500 workers.
The facility has swimming, cycling and indoor cricket facilities, as well as a medical centre, industrial kitchen, dining hall, cinema, library and gym.
Murphy said those staying at the Howard Springs facility were unlikely to become infectious and their health would be closely monitored.
“It is important people living in and around Howard Springs know the novel coronavirus can only be transmitted by close contact with an infectious person and cannot be spread through the air,” he said.
“The health and safety of the Howard Springs community is of paramount importance and I am confident the security and public health measures put in place will prevent any risk to the community’s health.”