Prime Minister Scott Morrison has thanked medical staff, Qantas crew and the Chinese Government for assisting with the evacuation of 241 Australians from Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, to Western Australia.
The Qantas flight, which landed at the RAAF Base Learmonth, near Exmouth, just after 4pm local time on Monday, was the first of what is likely to be two departure flights for Australians seeking to leave the city of Wuhan.
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Mr Morrison said all passengers had now been transferred into quarantine on Christmas Island, excluding a pregnant woman and her partner who will remain in isolation in Perth.
Of the passengers that returned safely to Australia, five were under two years old while 89 were younger than 16.
“Thank you to everyone involved in what has been a complex and very challenging operation, from our medical staff, Qantas ground and aircrew to Australian diplomats and other officials,” Mr Morrison wrote on Instagram.
“I particularly want to thank the Chinese Government for their co-operative approach.”
The Qantas flight left Wuhan around 8am local time after their departure was delayed by about six hours.
While Flight Radar anticipated the Boeing 747 would take a direct route from the Chinese city to Western Australia, the flight took an evidently longer path.
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Speaking to news.com.au, aviation expert Neil Hansford said the route was likely due to the aircraft wanting to stay within international waters airspace.
“This flight was a charter and not a scheduled flight, so instead of going Malaysia and straight over Java … following the South China Sea meant they didn’t have to get any overfly approvals,” he said.
“This path means they would’ve missed the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesian airspace … which wouldn’t have wanted this plane to land.
“So instead, he (pilot) stayed out on international waters before coming into Australian air space. As soon as they got to Aussie airspace, they went directly to Learmonth.”
Mr Hansford said by flying along international waters and not directly over country airspace, the Australian airline wouldn’t have had to seek any Landing and Overflight Permissions which can be “time consuming”.
News.com.au has contacted Qantas for comment.
AUSTRALIANS WILL BE ON NEW ZEALAND EVACUATION FLIGHT
Overnight, the Australian Government announced that remaining Australians trapped and still seeking a way out of Wuhan will be able to board an Air New Zealand evacuation flight possibly as early as Tuesday evening.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Air NZ flight had departed as of Tuesday and would stop in Hong Kong before continuing on to Wuhan.
It said Chinese authorities had cleared the flight to land late on Tuesday, Wuhan time, which is early morning in New Zealand.
The flight is expected to be back in Auckland late on Wednesday afternoon, New Zealand time.
The number and nationalities of passengers is yet to be confirmed, but they will include New Zealanders and possibly Pacific Islanders.
It’s still not clear what will happen to the Australians once the plane lands in Auckland, where they would be expected to be put into quarantine. But they could be sent back to Australia.
There have been 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, and more than 17,000 cases and 360 deaths globally.
In addition to the AIR NZ flight, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Government would “consider what might be necessary” when asked if a second flight would be organised from Australia to Wuhan.
Prior to Qantas’ departure from Wuhan on Monday, CEO Alan Joyce paid tribute to the crew of four pilots and 14 cabin staff who volunteered for the mission.
“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,” he said.
Prior to boarding, passengers underwent health checks and were set to wear surgical masks.
There was a limited food and beverage service to minimise interaction between crew and passengers, and the plane will now undergo a three-day cleaning process. The crew had masks, gloves and sanitisers and were placed on the upper deck of the aircraft.
The plane contained medical-grade filters that remove particles in the air, including viruses.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the Government’s protective measures were effective.
“Many people now coming from mainland China, who have been in China as at the first of February, are deciding not to travel,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“That’s been because of the edict issued by the border force commissioner that people shouldn’t be uploaded onto flights.”
However, Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the changes to entry into Australia meant the tourism sector was expected to take an $11 billion hit, but public health must come first.
“This is our largest tourism market, our largest international education market, our largest trading partner so, of course, it is a significant and severe impact,” he said.
ISOLATION ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND
A team of specialist doctors and nurses is closely monitoring the 243 Australian evacuees on Christmas Island.
They endured about 24 hours in transit, including a stop at Western Australia’s RAAF Base Learmonth, near Exmouth, before being taken on smaller aircraft to the island.
The National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre is overseeing their care and says medics on the island have reported all of the evacuees are well.
“They haven’t shown signs of the virus, and all going well, God willing, they won’t be showing signs of it and will in 14 days repatriate back home to their nation, Australia,” the centre’s executive director Len Notaras told ABC radio on Tuesday.
Prof Notaras said the evacuees were being kept in discreet clusters of family members or friendship groups.
That will allow medics to effectively manage any emergency and guard against any widespread transmission of the virus among the evacuees. He said the Christmas Island facility being used to house the group would meet all of their needs.
“I won’t say that it is a salubrious one, but it is modern, and it is clean,” Prof Notaras said.
Meanwhile, more than 100 other Australians are expected to join an Air New Zealand charter flight from Wuhan to Auckland.