Australia has begun evacuating its citizens trapped by the coronavirus outbreak in China to an immigration detention centre on a remote island.
Evacuees from Wuhan are en route to Australia’s Christmas Island, where they will be quarantined for two weeks. Canberra said 243 citizens and permanent residents, including 89 children, were on board. A second flight is also scheduled for this week.
Pictures on social media showed queues of families waiting to board on Monday.
“We have prioritised vulnerable and isolated Australians,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne told reporters in Canberra.
The nation’s flagship carrier, Qantas, is operating the chartered flight. All those on board would wear masks and other protective clothing, and interactions between staff and passengers would be minimal, said chief executive Alan Joyce. The flight was due to arrive at an air force base in Learmonth, Western Australia on Monday afternoon. Passengers would then be placed on another flight to Christmas Island.
The external territory, 2,700km (1,680 miles) from the mainland, is best known for its immigration detention centre. Since 2003, thousands of asylum seekers have been detained there under Australia’s hardline refugee policy. It currently only houses a family of four Sri Lankan who are fighting deportation.
Evacuees had previously expressed concern about the plan, and some have chosen to stay on in Wuhan. There are over 600 Australians in the locked-down city and surrounding Hubei province.
One passenger, Gloria Zeng, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she decided last minute to board the flight with her three children after initial resistance. “I’m really nervous… it will be a long journey,” she told the broadcaster.
The Christmas Island facility was closed in 2018 but re-opened the following year. Critics had last week questioned the state of medical facilities on the island, and the holding of citizens in an immigration detention centre. Nations such as the US, France, and Japan have repatriated their citizens to the mainland. Some Chinese-Australian evacuees feared they were being treated differently to “white Australians”.
However, Canberra strongly rebuffed suggestions of a bias on Monday. “[The plan] is only founded on medical advice and any suggestion otherwise I absolutely reject,” Ms Payne said.
Evacuees will also no longer have to pay A$1,000 (£500; $670) fee for the evacuation after Canberra reversed an earlier decision. The government has previously said it could not “quickly accommodate” hundreds of evacuees in mainland hospitals. It has deployed a specialist team of 24 doctors and nurses to the island, where a tent field hospital has been set up.
“This will allow [the medical team] to operate independent of clinical facilities on Christmas Island,” authorities said. There have been 12 confirmed cases of the virus in Australia. Of those, three people have recovered and been released from hospital in Sydney.
Globally, more than 360 people have died from the virus and there are over 17,000 cases.
On Saturday, Australia joined several other nations in imposing an immediate travel ban on foreign nationals entering from China. Experts have warned that the 14-day ban, if continued, could have a significant impact on the tourism and university sectors.