The UK government has evacuated about 83 British citizens and 27 other nationals who were trapped in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, ending days of agonising delays.
Friday’s flight, which departed at 9:45am local time, was scheduled to arrive at the Royal Airforce Brize Norton base in Oxfordshire at 1pm UK time after which the British passengers would be quarantined for two weeks at a medical facility. The people being evacuated included this correspondent.
“The flight will continue on to Spain following the stopover in the UK, at which point EU nationals’ home countries will take responsibility for them,” the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said in a statement.
The World Health Organization on Thursday declared a global health emergency to deal with the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 10,000 people and killed 213, mostly in Wuhan.
Estimates of the incubation period of the virus range from two to 10 days, according to WHO.
The British evacuation came after the US airlifted 210 citizens out of Wuhan on Tuesday while Japan has conducted two evacuation flights.
The number of British nationals boarding the flight was fewer than originally expected, witnesses said. Diplomats said there were 300 British nationals in Wuhan while 200 had registered for the flight on Thursday.
Those hoping to leave the stricken city have been prevented from doing so for the past week because of roadblocks, a ban on public transport and the closure of the city’s airport.
British evacuees boarding the flight were asked to sign a document pledging they would remain at a National Health Service facility for two weeks.
But they claimed the government did not inform them what the conditions would be like or the location of the facility.
“The media gets the information before we do,” complained one evacuee, Patrick Brogan, a British tourist in Wuhan.
Japanese and US officials have said those returning from Wuhan would be allowed to self-quarantine if they did not display symptoms.
By contrast, Canberra said it would isolate its citizens evacuated from Wuhan on Christmas Island, 2,100 miles north-west of Australia.
Mr Brogan said earlier he would have to leave his Chinese girlfriend behind because Beijing was only allowing Britons on the flight.
“I’m pleased [to be leaving], but also sad to leave my girlfriend behind,” he said, before adding: “I would prefer to know the details of what will happen [on arrival].”
Other evacuees seeking to board the flight included Veronica Theobald. The 81-year-old from Lancaster, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said she was running low on medication.