Britons stranded in a coronavirus-hit city in China are set to be flown home tomorrow and isolated for two weeks, possibly in a military barracks, to stop the killer infection spreading here.
The repatriation plane, which is due to leave Wuhan early tomorrow morning, could fly straight to a military base in the UK. The pilots, attendants and medics will be issued with protective equipment.
As the crisis grew, British Airways this morning cancelled flights in and out of China, sparking fears that thousands of UK citizens on holiday, work visits or school trips there could struggle to get home easily.
The number of deaths in mainland China rose to 132, while confirmed cases soared to nearly 6,000 — more than the 5,327 cases in the 2003 outbreak of Sars.
British evacuees will have to agree to be isolated for two weeks, the incubation period for the virus, or will be banned from boarding the government-chartered plane.
They will also undergo a health check and will not be able to board if they are displaying any coronavirus symptoms. A government source said: “We are working hard to get British nationals back from Wuhan, but public safety is the top priority and we aren’t taking any chances.
“Anyone we bring back will be isolated for 14 days. If they don’t want to be quarantined then they can stay in Wuhan.”
The returnees will be quarantined in a secure facility for the 14-day incubation period, whether they are showing symptoms or not. They will be cared for and offered any necessary medical attention.
The stringent measures were ordered as health chiefs have become alarmed at how quickly the infection is spreading in China, with a small number of cases in other countries as well.
So far, the new coronavirus strain, known as “2019-nCoV”, is less deadly than Sars which killed more than 770 people globally in the early 2000s, including 349 in mainland China, but it is believed to be spreading more quickly.
Experts in the US believe the real figure for coronavirus cases could already be more than 20,000.
Foreign governments are now racing to repatriate their citizens from Hubei province, which is at the heart of the crisis.
The British plane, with a doctor on board, was due to leave the UK this afternoon for the 5,512-mile flight to Wuhan, the first of several cities put into lockdown by Chinese authorities.
About 250 Britons are believed to be in Hubei province but it was not clear how many of them want to get on the evacuation flight, which could leave tomorrow. The Government could also face the challenge of how to repatriate British citizens if more air routes out of China are shut and there is a surge of foreigners seeking to get out.
Cabinet minister Baroness Morgan said the Government had experience of major repatriations to “get people home as quickly as we can”. British Airways acted after the Foreign Office last night warned against all but essential travel to mainland China.
BA, which operates daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing from Heathrow, cancelled these routes for two days to assess the situation. In a statement, the airline said: “We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.” Virgin Atlantic said it was continuing to operate its flights between Heathrow and Shanghai, with passengers able to rebook or obtain a refund free of charge.
Lecturer Yvonne Griffiths, who is in a hotel in Wuhan, said she received news in the early hours today that there was to be an evacuation flight from Wuhan airport to the UK.
She told BBC Breakfast that Stansted is a possible destination, but that has not been confirmed and timings have not been either. “We have to be on stand-by so that we can go to the airport very early,” she said. “We have to be there six to seven hours before the flight leaves, and we would have a screening from some health people here in Wuhan.”
Four cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Germany, making it the second European country to report cases, after France.
About 100 people have been tested in the UK with all negative so far, although scientists have predicted it may have entered the country.
Some 1,400 people who have returned to the UK from Wuhan since January 10 have been told to self-isolate themselves for 14 days.