A week on from their emergency Wuhan evacuation, most of the Australians sent to Christmas Island from China due to the coronavirus outbreak are past the halfway mark of their 14-day quarantine period.
- The first Australians evacuated from China will be allowed home next week
- Queensland man Wayne Binney has told of his family’s escape from Wuhan
- Tests for coronavirus are being done on a second evacuee at Christmas Island
It has sparked a new exercise in logistics with plans to return them home in full swing, coordinated by a cast of government, health and military officials on the island.
It is expected the first group who left Wuhan on a Qantas evacuation flight will be allowed to fly home on Monday.
They will board buses and be driven along the jungle-lined roads to Christmas Island’s small airport.
The drive will be slow to avoid the world-famous red crabs and their larger relatives, the robber crabs, which are given right of way on the island’s roads.
Unlike during their arrival on Christmas Island, the evacuees will not be required to wear face masks as they will have been declared clear of coronavirus.
Queensland man Wayne Binney said taking off his mask was the first thing he was looking forward to.
“The big thing is the mask. Wearing it all the time it’s constricting and you don’t get as much oxygen when you’re walking around,” he said.
“If you go up high in the mountains, the higher you go the less oxygen there is. It’s a little bit like that.
“When we get to our rooms we can take them off but outside you can’t, so that’s one thing that we’ll be most happy to do is not have to wear a mask around the place.”
Chartered planes to take evacuees to Perth
The head of the AUSMAT medical team on the island, Dan Holmes, said staff would be required to continue wearing protective clothing and masks until the last evacuees had left.
“Now, technically, we’re making sure that they don’t get contaminated by us,” he said.
“The risks are extraordinarily low and our staff have worn all the correct equipment, but it just means we can’t take the masks off and give everyone hugs until the second group of evacuees leaves.”
Two chartered planes will be waiting at the airport and it is understood the evacuees will be flown to Perth.
Plans are still being finalised, but from Perth it was anticipated those who lived interstate would then be required to make their own arrangements to complete the journey.
The second group who were evacuated from Wuhan on an Air New Zealand flight are due to leave Christmas Island next Wednesday aboard another chartered flight.
Mr Binney said once he arrived home he would head out to a property he owned in Mary Valley, before going to play nine holes of golf.
“But I think the first thing I’ll do is have a glass of red wine and some cheese and biccies, that sounds like a plan,” he said.
Mr Binney, his wife Jemma and their 15-year-old daughter Meiling found themselves in Christmas Island’s detention centre after holidaying in China to visit family.
Mr Binney had been working, so his wife and daughter had travelled to China earlier and he met them in Yichang right as the outbreak was turning into a crisis.
“I got there by the 20th of January and by the 21st we realised it was all happening, so we had to try and arrange to change our flight,” he said.
A nightmare escape but disaster averted
Mr and Mrs Binney had been in China in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, so they knew getting out of the country was a priority.
“We were worried and our thinking behind the decision to go back to the epicentre and get on the plane was twofold,” he said.
“One, we feared we wouldn’t have gotten out because they were shutting down the airports and there was talk that the Australian Government wasn’t going to let any flights in from China.
“The second one was, if I was going to get sick, I would rather be here sick than there sick.”
But the Binneys’ attempts to escape Hubei province via trains, buses and flights became unstuck at every turn as the area was locked down.
Mr Binney said once they were approved to be evacuated on the Federal Government’s Qantas flight, the most difficult part of the journey was travelling from Yichang into Wuhan.
In order to do so, they needed official documentation from the Australian Government and a driver willing to take them there.
“We had to get a letter and we had to try and get a driver, which was the most difficult part because no one wanted to go into Wuhan,” Mr Binney said.
“Yichang is about four hours out of Wuhan and people didn’t want to go back into the epicentre.”
When they eventually found someone willing to make the journey, they still had not received the right documentation.
“Then we got the letter about 2:00am and we needed to leave at 6:00am, but it had a big official Australian stamp on it, so we were on our way,” Mr Binney said.
“We arrived in Wuhan and there wasn’t a soul on the roads, not a soul anywhere, everyone was inside.”
Mr Binney said evacuating via Wuhan was a “nightmare” but it helped them avoid another disaster.
“We were supposed to go to Chengdu to get out of China and we never got there,” he said.
“But the day that we flew here to Christmas Island, they had a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in Chengdu, so there’s always a positive that comes out of every story.”
Coronavirus testing shifts to Christmas Island
There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus among the evacuees on Christmas Island.
A girl was tested for the virus after developing some flu-like symptoms, but the results confirmed she had not contracted the illness.
It is believed her symptoms could have been caused by a number of ordinary factors that might make someone feel unwell.
After a lengthy, nervous wait isolated from the main part of the detention centre, the girl and her family were allowed to return to their usual accommodation compound.
Her test had to be flown to Perth to be run in a laboratory there but yesterday a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules C130 delivered medical equipment to the island, including a diagnostic machine.
The machine will be set up inside the detention centre and should be operational by tomorrow, allowing coronavirus tests to be conducted on site and meaning results will be available much sooner.
“It allows us to turn that around in two or three hours, to either confirm that person has not got novel coronavirus, [and] that means that person does not have to be isolated,” Dr Holmes said.
“Or, if it’s confirmed that they do, then we can start the process of contact tracing and isolating the person and putting their family in appropriate accommodation and so on.”
Second person tested as evacuees settle in
Late last night it was confirmed a second evacuee was being tested for coronavirus, with their sample returned to the mainland on the same military plane that delivered the diagnostic machine.
Other people on the island will only be tested on an as-needs basis because the virus can be undetectable while it is incubating.
Dr Holmes stressed the threshold for ordering a test was very low and most were ultimately ordered as a precaution.
“If you had asked me at the start of these two weeks if I thought we would be testing people, the answer would have been yes, because it’s such a low threshold for meeting testing criteria that we’re going to have to,” he said.
“But it’s just a natural part of what we’re doing.”
The small army of people working at the centre have also done what they can to make life more comfortable for the evacuees and to try and combat the boredom that comes with confinement.
“I think there’s no reason to complain given the way we’ve been looked after. Of course people will get a little stir crazy, but they’re getting into a routine,” Mr Binney said.
“They can go walking around outside, there’s a concrete pathway that goes all the way around the middle of the complex outside, so they’re all doing that.”
“There’s a tennis court and we’ve got balls, they brought kids toys, tennis racquets, balls, all sorts of things that they can their hands on to give people the opportunity to at least engage in something, to get their mind off being bored.”
Connected to the outside world again
Mr Binney said the morale of the evacuees had been boosted by a carefully-managed Chinese New Year concert held inside the centre on Saturday night, featuring lanterns hung from a forklift and musical performances by evacuees, military personnel and Dr Holmes on a piano.
After an initially painful lack of connectivity, the military has now also installed more routers in the detention centre to improve internet availability.
Christmas Island has a 2G mobile network which only facilitates voice calls and text messages, but even that broke down for 24 hours last week.
That mobile outage followed two days of next-to-no internet connection anywhere on the island, as one of the major providers that services the smatterings of Wi-Fi available on the island also suffered an outage.
“I’ve been reading and now that the internet is coming through my daughter is trying to get her school work done and that sort of thing,” Mr Binney said.
“She actually dropped her phone, and that’s a disaster of course, because you can’t do much about fixing that.
“She dropped it on the floor and of course, it’s like dropping the pancake or the toast, it always lands on the butter side.”
There are about 120 children under the age of 16 inside the detention centre. Like the adults there with them, they have begun counting down the days now they are just one week away from freedom.
More on the coronavirus outbreak: