The first plane load of Australians stranded in the coronavirus epicentre will arrive in Western Australia on Monday afternoon after a lengthy flight from China.
More than 200 Australian citizens and permanent residents were on board the Qantas plane that left Wuhan about 11am (ADST) on Monday.
They were bound first for the RAAF Base Learmonth near Exmouth in WA’s north, where they were due to land about 2.30pm (local time) on Monday.
From there, the passengers face a further four-hour flight in smaller aircraft to Christmas Island, where they will be quarantined in small groups for a fortnight. The island’s runway is too short for the Boeing 747 used for the evacuation to land.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) February 3, 2020
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the plan was for the evacuees to be kept in small family groups.
“There won’t be a full mingling,” he said on Monday.
“If someone does get unwell, their family might have to start again for 14 days but we wouldn’t want to expose the whole group to that.”
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said the 747 was carrying 243 passengers and a volunteer crew, four pilots and officials from the Department of Health. Among the passengers are five children under two years old and 89 people younger than 16.
“I spoke to the crew last night and through FaceTime video and they were all very keen to get this done and get the Aussies out,” Mr Joyce said.
Even before their plane left China on Monday, the evacuees had endured a difficult journey, including a 14-hour wait at Wuhan airport before they could board.
They had health checks before boarding the flight and will wear surgical masks.
There will be a limited food and beverage service to minimise interaction between crew and passengers and the plane will undergo a three-day cleaning process when it returns.
“Even the cushions of every seat are taken off and cleaned, so it’s quite extensive and we believe more than meets the needs to make sure the aircraft is safe going forward,” Mr Joyce said.
The crew have masks, gloves, and sanitisers and will be placed on the upper deck of the aircraft.
“In-flight, there is water left on the seats. The crew go back to the upper deck, which is sealed,” Mr Joyce said.
The plane has medical-grade filters that remove particles in the air, including viruses.
Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed an Australian medical assistance team with a mobile hospital had arrived on Christmas Island.
“Personnel are in place to receive the passengers from Wuhan and we expect that the flight will be collecting within the next 24 hours,” Mr Hunt said on Sunday.
Equipped, prepared and ready – AUSMAT heading to Christmas Island includes infectious disease specialists, epidemiologist, emergency doctors, pharmacist, nurses experienced in midwifery, paediatrics, retrieval and critical care. @GregHuntMP #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/bchNQCfvjQ
— NCCTRC (@NatTraumaCentre) February 1, 2020
On Sunday (Australian time), a 44-year-old Chinese man in the Philippines became the first confirmed coronavirus fatality outside of China.
He was from Wuhan and had travelled to the Philippines, where he later died from the respiratory-illness, the country’s Department of Health said.
There have been 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia.
There are now more than 14,000 cases of the virus globally, and just over 300 deaths.
People who have been in mainland China since the start of February – excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – are advised to self-isolate.
Australians are also being told not to travel to mainland China.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Saturday that foreign travellers who have left or passed through China will be denied entry to Australia, aiming to stop the spread of the coronavirus.