Britons on evacuation flight from Wuhan tell of relief and confusion

Britons who were onboard the evacuation flight from Wuhan have spoken of the confusion surrounding their departure with some still having to leave loved ones behind.

The flight, carrying 87 Britons and 27 foreign nationals from the coronavirus-hit Chinese city, touched down at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire at about 1.30pm and passengers were transferred by coach to Arrowe Park hospital in Wirral, where they will be quarantined for two weeks.

One of those onboard was Ben Williams, who was in Wuhan for his wedding and honeymoon, and was forced to leave his wife behind.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of January 30, the death toll in China stands at 170, with 7,711 confirmed cases of infections. In the past week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. The virus has also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. There have been two confirmed cases in the UK. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

He told the BBC he found out at the last minute that she would be allowed on the flight after a U-turn by Chinese authorities, who had initially said their citizens and dual-nationals would not be allowed on. However, delays and miscommunications between embassies meant none of her paperwork was ready.

Williams said: “By the time we got out the door it was very much a close call to get to the meeting point to get on this flight and sadly my wife has nothing prepared and it wasn’t right for her to enter the UK with essentially nothing.” He said he hoped to be reunited with his wife in a few months.

Matt Raw also made the flight at short notice, after initially being told that his Chinese wife, Ying, who has a visitor visa for the UK, would not be allowed to travel.

When the Chinese authorities decided to ease the restrictions, Raw was able to make the flight with his wife and 75-year-old mother, Hazel.

He said the flight was like any normal plane journey, and passengers were served chicken tikka masala.

In video footage from the flight, he said: “It’s maybe not the best quality airplane food that I’ve had, but certainly this is probably one of the best meals of my life – we’re on our way home.

“There’s no beer onboard, luckily I did see one shop in the airport that was open and I pretty much emptied the fridge of beer, so this will do us nicely.”

On Instagram, Patrick Graham showed pictures of officials in hazmat suits helping passengers check in at Wuhan airport. “Thank you Wamos Air staff for getting us home … They also have to go into a period of quarantine just for bringing us home!” one post said.

James Convey told Sky News the atmosphere among passengers was positive: “I think everyone was relieved to get out of China. There were a lot of obstacles for people to get on that plane […] and we’re all very relieved to be back in the UK.

“It was a very tight, tight turnaround so we had an hour and a half to get to Wuhan airport. All the transport was locked down and the roads were closed, but my mother-in-law managed to call in a few favours and got someone to take us to the airport and amazingly we did get there on time. I think there was probably a lot of people who didn’t get there on time and possibly missed the flight.”

It was originally estimated that 150 Britons would be on the flight, but poor communication and the last-minute U-turn by China meant many did not make it.

Anthony May-Smith and girlfriend.

Anthony May-Smith with his girlfriend, Yenny. Photograph: Handout

One of those was Anthony May-Smith, 26, from Lichfield, Staffordshire, who travelled to Wuhan a couple of weeks ago to visit his girlfriend, Yenny. Although the flight was delayed to allow as many people to make it to the airport on time, May-Smith was given two hours’ notice, and had no way of getting there.

“It was pretty much impossible to get there. I’ve been trying [to find a way] for the last few days leading up to the flight but just couldn’t find anything.”

He said the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had been “the complete opposite of helpful” throughout the evacuation process, and offered no support or guidance on how to get to the airport. “They just said ‘We’re sorry that you can’t make it’.”

He has been told by the FCO that a flight organised by the French is leaving on Sunday and he may be able to get a seat on that, although he’s “not holding his breath”.

Michael Gove told Sky News the government would send another plane to Wuhan to evacuate British nationals if needed.

After disembarking, passengers were taken on a three-and-a-half-hour drive to an NHS facility in the Wirral in a convoy of coaches with a police escort. Speaking from the coach, Raw said: “We’ve hit gridlock on the M40 motorway and the police are now actually blocking the main flow of traffic to allow us to proceed.”

The coach company said the vehicles used for the journey would be “deep cleaned” and the drivers who agreed to take the job will be given paid leave to “remain at home for the next 10 days”.

At least seven coaches from Horseman Coaches Ltd were seen arriving at airbase, and they will be removed from service for a minimum of 10 days after they are cleaned, the company said.


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