Australians trapped in the Chinese city of Wuhan following a lethal outbreak of coronavirus will soon be evacuated, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced.
Up to 600 Australians transported from the city at the epicentre of the viral outbreak will be sent for at least 14 days to Christmas Island, which will be used as a quarantine facility.
Mr Morrison said Qantas had offered aircraft to assist with evacuating Australians from the Chinese city.
Up to 100 New Zealanders who are also stranded in Wuhan will be included in the dual-nation operation.
However, many details of the airlift are still being finalised.
“There is rather a limited window here and we are moving very, very swiftly to ensure we can put this plan together and put the operation together,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.
“I stress that this will be done on a last-in, first-out basis.”
Millions of people in Hubei have been locked down as the Chinese government fights to contain the spread of the deadly new coronavirus.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said people who are in China but outside Hubei province were able to return home freely.
But the evacuation offer for people in Wuhan was likely to be a one-off and decisions to take up the offer should be made quickly.
“It’s not going to be something that’s going to be repeated,” Mr Porter told 6PR radio.
“That province has been closed down, so us having an assisted exit using a Qantas chartered jet is something that we feel we should do for the wellbeing of those Australians.”
— AFP news agency (@AFP) January 29, 2020
Wednesday’s announcement follows similar moves by other nations to evacuate nationals from Wuhan.
The US embassy in Beijing has reportedly chartered a plane to pick up its consular staff while the European Commission said it would help fund two aircraft to fly EU citizens home, including 250 French nationals.
Japan is also reportedly planning to fly charter planes into Wuhan to evacuate its citizens.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said more than 600 Australians in Hubei province had registered with consular officials. Among them are more than 100 children.
“Our focus in this proposed assisted departure is on supporting isolated and vulnerable Australian citizens,” Senator Payne said.
“We are endeavouring to make further contact with people who have given us their details.”
Australia has also upgraded its official travel advice, urging people to reconsider all travel to China.
We now advise you to ‘reconsider your need to travel’ to China overall, due to the outbreak of novel #coronavirus & travel restrictions by local authorities. ‘Do not travel’ to #Hubei Province. Contact your doctor for symptoms of respiratory illness. https://t.co/8HM6dAGpM7
— Marise Payne (@MarisePayne) January 28, 2020
Five people are being treated in Australian hospitals for the virus. Four –one woman and three men – are in NSW and the fifth, a man, is in Melbourne.
NSW Health said on Wednesday afternoon it was investigating 16 potential new cases.
Four adult patients in Western Australia were cleared of the virus after tests on Tuesday night. Ten people have been tested in South Australia, with seven cleared.
Cases have emerged in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan of the virus spreading by human transmission, as opposed to being limited to those who have returned from a trip to China.
“The thing that we are determined to avoid internationally and nationally is what we call sustained human-to-human transmission, where you go from one person to another,” Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy said.
“These are isolated cases in Japan and Germany but they are obviously of some concern and we’re having that reviewed today by our peak communicable diseases advice panel.”
Australian diplomats in Shanghai are being sent to Wuhan to help with the evacuation and an AUSMAT team of doctors, nurses and paramedics has been readied.
China has confirmed it has more than 6000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 132 deaths.
The federal government will also make one million masks available for patients and health workers at general practices where somebody has come forward with coronavirus symptoms.