Dozens of Brits fleeing coronavirus-struck China are headed home on a rescue flight – and face a fortnight in quarantine when they arrive.
A total of 110 passengers – 83 Brits and 27 foreign nationals – are flying from the disease’s epicentre city Wuhan and due to arrive this afternoon.
They leave behind a country that has seen more the 200 people killed by the virus, with more than 9,000 more infected.
The civilian aircraft chartered by the Foreign Office, left Wuhan at 9.45am local time, the government said in a notice on its website.
Some Brits are being left behind after apparently only being given two hours to get to the airport.
Others, meanwhile, have opted to stay as their dual-national loved ones have been barred from boarding the rescue plane.
Passengers have been posting selfies in Wuhan Airport and on the plane, which will touch down at RAF Brize Norton, before those on board are quickly ferried to a specialised NHS facility at Arrowe Park Hospital.
Patrick Graham shared a post on his Instagram page of him wearing a face mask, with the words: “Been awake for 24 hours…off to an isolation centre somewhere in Merseyside for 14 days. Fair to say 2020 has started with a bang!”
While Ben Kavanagh, the first on board, shared a selfie showing him sat at the front of an empty plane in his mask, with the caption joking: “Groupselfie of me and all my friends.”
Ben, a psychology teacher from Kilcullen in Co Kildare, Ireland, had been working in Wuhan for almost two years.
He is one of three Irishmen and told the Irish Mirror: “There are two other Irish lads here and we’ll all be getting off in Britain, getting into quarantine there.”
The 24 year-old, from Kilcullen, Co Kildare said he has been told he will spend up to two weeks in quarantine in an NHS facility, but is hopeful if he does not show any symptoms he might be able to leave after 7-to-10 days.
Ben said: “I always said I’d go home if the circumstances were right and now that there is a quarantine waiting then that’s ideal.
“So I can’t infect anyone if I’m actually infected and obviously the WHO have declared an international health emergency so it’s probably the right time to leave.
“But I was in two minds the entire time [up] until now,” he continued.
“My mother lives in Liverpool so I’ll go to her first before I head back to Ireland so that’s the plan.”
Last week, the teacher told how the city has become a “ghost town” as people hid indoors to prevent the spread of disease.
The plane is due to arrive at 1pm in Britain, before continuing on to Spain where the home countries of European Union citizens will take responsibility for the remaining passengers.
“We know how distressing the situation has been for those waiting to leave,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, according to the notice. “We have been working round the clock to clear the way for a safe departure.”
The death toll of the virus has reached 213 with thousands more infected by the epidemic, believed to have been started by a bat in a wet market.
The Chinese government does not recognise dual nationality, and it is believed people with Chinese citizenship were unable to leave the affected area.
Chris Hill, a British citizen living in Wuhan with his wife and four-year-old daughter Renee, said he’s “losing faith” after officials could not confirm whether his family to come with him.
The 38-year-old said: “I told them immediately, I said ‘Oh OK so you cannot confirm in any way that they could travel with me’ and they said ‘we’re trying our best but we can’t guarantee anything,’ so I said ‘No, I’m not going’.
“With the current situation and the way the FCO is handling the diplomatic side of things, I’m just losing faith.”
While Anthony May-Smith was all packed and ready for days but was only given two hours to reach the rescue point and so missed the plane.
He told Sky News: “There’s a complete transport ban in the city.
“I’ve said this to them every time I’ve spoken to them and asked them what they can do to help, and every time, always ‘make your own way there’.
“It’s literally impossible to get there.”
He added: “There’s no cars, there’s no taxis, anything, and the FCO say, ‘Oh we’ll pick you up from Wuhan Tianhe airport but you have to make your own way there’.
“That gives me a very bad taste in my mouth. It’s just bad planning.”
And Adam Bridgeman was planning to fleeing with his wife Su and baby Austin, just four weeks old but was apparently told his wife “couldn’t board the plane because she’s a Chinese national”.
He told Good Morning Britain: “I wasn’t sure if we were going to board the plane anyway – they said my wife couldn’t board the plane because she’s a Chinese national.
“They were unable to confirm if my son could have been able to board.
“We were thinking I could go with my son and leave my wife here – but separating a mother from her newborn baby wasn’t really something we were willing to do.”
Three military medics and Public Health England (PHE) officials are on board the plane, though it will be crewed by civilians.
A different rescue plane was planned for Thursday but couldn’t get clearance from Chinese authorities.
The evacuation came after the UK’s four chief medical officers raised the risk level of the illness from low to moderate and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an international public health emergency.
Chinese health officials said on Friday morning the death toll in the country from the virus had risen to 213, up from 170 a day earlier, with the number of known cases rising from 7,711 to 9,692.
No deaths have occurred outside China, although 82 cases have been confirmed across 18 countries.
The WHO’s announcement led Virgin Atlantic to suspend its flights between the UK and China for two weeks starting on Saturday.
British Airways on Thursday extended its suspension of China flights until Monday.
On Thursday evening, WHO declared coronavirus as an international public health emergency due to fears of the virus spreading to countries with weaker health infrastructure.
After British Airways extended its China flights suspension until Monday, Virgin Atlantic released a statement late on Thursday night saying its China services would cease for a fortnight after the arrival of its flight from Shanghai on Saturday.
“This decision has been made with the safety of customers and staff at the front of our minds,” the airline said.
The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
As of Thursday, 161 people have tested negative for the virus in the UK and 124 people have recovered and have since been discharged from hospital in China.
In a letter following WHO’s announcement, the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland said: “In light of the increasing number of cases in China and using existing and widely tested models, the four UK chief medical officers consider it prudent for our governments to escalate planning and preparation in case of a more widespread outbreak.”
They added that it is “likely” there will be individual cases in the UK, but that they are “confident in the ability of the NHS and HSC in Northern
Ireland to manage these in a way that protects the public and provides high-quality care”.
Officials had been working to secure a flight out of Wuhan for British nationals after one planned for Thursday failed to get clearance from Chinese authorities.
Mr Raab said officials had “been working tirelessly” to get citizens out of Wuhan.
The PA news agency understands the FCO tried to ensure families can remain together and relatives with dual citizenship are allowed on the flight.