29 Jan 2020 — Updated


Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the Federal Government will try to evacuate “isolated and vulnerable Australians” trapped in China because of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.

Key points:

  • Australians in Hubei province at risk of coronavirus will be airlifted to Christmas Island for quarantine
  • The Government has upgraded its travel warnings for all of China
  • 600 Australians are registered as being in Hubei province

It comes as federal health authorities have asked all people who have had any contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus to isolate themselves in their homes for 14 days.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee wants all passengers who have returned from Hubei province to isolate themselves for a fortnight.

The National Security Committee of Cabinet met early on Wednesday and decided to launch the repatriation operation, after a briefing from Chinese authorities in Beijing on Monday.

Mr Morrison said Australian children and elderly people in the virus-hit city of Wuhan would get priority.

They will be taken to Christmas Island for quarantine.

“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.

“I stress that this will be done on a last-in, first-out basis.

“Those who have been there who do not have an established support infrastructure where they’re living, they would have been shorter-term travellers to that area, they would not have been living there for many years and we’re particularly focused on the more vulnerable components of that population.”

The outbreak of the deadly disease has so far claimed more than 120 lives, and infected more than 4,000 people in China.

In Australia, Victorian authorities confirmed a second case in that state on Wednesday.

“Given the lower number of cases in China reported outside of Hubei province, we do not currently recommend self-isolation for travellers from other parts of China or other countries,” chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said.

“We are closely monitoring the development of cases outside of Hubei province and will update this advice if necessary.”

Hundreds of Australians in Hubei

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said more than 600 Australians had registered as being in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.

Millions of people in Hubei have been locked down as the Chinese Government fights to contain the spread of the virus.

“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.”

Evacuees will be transferred to the detention centre on Christmas Island, which has been home to a Tamil family from Biloela since August last year.

They will remain in a separate area from the people going into quarantine.

The timeframe of the repatriation remains unclear. Senator Payne said it would be contingent on permission from Chinese authorities.

China travel warnings strengthened

Australians are also being told to reconsider any plans to travel to China, due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

After advising people not to visit Hubei province, where the outbreak started, the Federal Government’s Smart Traveller website has now upgraded its warning for the rest of China from normal advice to ‘reconsider your need to travel’.

The travel advisory does not apply to Hong Kong or Macau.

Marise Payne

@MarisePayne

We now advise you to ‘reconsider your need to travel’ to China overall, due to the outbreak of novel & travel restrictions by local authorities. ‘Do not travel’ to Province. Contact your doctor for symptoms of respiratory illness. https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/destinations/asia/china 

Smart Traveller warns visitors to take extra safety precautions if they do travel, and to check if they are still covered by their insurer.

The updated advice mirrors a raft of similar travel advisories from other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, which earlier recommended people avoid non-essential travel to any part of China.

One of the first flights to bring foreign citizens out of Wuhan since the lockdown began touched down in Tokyo today carrying more than 200 Japanese citizens.

On Tuesday, Professor Murphy said a “large number of people” across Australia were being tested every day, the majority of them coming back negative.

There have been five confirmed cases of the virus in Australia.

A plane with ANA livery on the tarmac of an airport.

Christmas Island reacts to announcement

The repatriation announcement prompted surprise on Christmas Island, where locals said they had not been told of the plans before the announcement.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Government picked Christmas Island because it was best suited to quickly accommodate people needing to go into quarantine.

He said a condition of accepting the Government’s repatriation offer was a mandatory period on Christmas Island.