Coronavirus: more rescue flights planned for Hongkongers stranded in Hubei, epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak

Alvin Lum

More chartered flights will be sent to pick up Hongkongers stranded in the mainland Chinese province at the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic later this month, officials have announced, as the city confirmed seven more coronavirus cases on Monday.

Other than the provincial capital Wuhan, the flights will pick up residents stuck in the Hubei cities of Xianning, Xiaogan and Huangshi, as well as others scattered across the province with chronic diseases or in urgent need.

Officials did not specify the number of flights or evacuees expected to board. The flights will be arranged for March 24, with the possibility of more in the days after that.

Those returning will have to be quarantined at government sites for 14 days.

Four flights have already been sent to bring back Hongkongers stranded in Hubei, who face food shortages and a lack of access to medical treatment.

There are about 700 Hong Kong residents in the three newly specified cities, out of the about 3,400 in the entire province, according to mainland affairs minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen. Another 70 residents in Wuhan have also requested government help.

“To avoid the risk of cross-infection, we will focus on bringing those in cities about two to three hours’ drive from Wuhan, where relatively large numbers of Hongkongers are stranded,” Nip said.

He added that health chiefs in each city would have to certify that the evacuees were not previously infected, and had not been in close contact with anyone who was infected, before they could leave. Multiple temperature checks would be arranged throughout their return.

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The news came as Hong Kong recorded seven more confirmed infections, with six of the people having recent travel history, bringing the total in the city to 155 cases.

One case involved a 26-year-old woman, the girlfriend of a 35-year-old Hongkonger confirmed as infected on Sunday. The pair went to Hokkaido in Japan for a ski trip from late February to last Wednesday. The woman was at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin.

A 58-year-old man, who drove the couple home on their return to Hong Kong, also tested positive. He was the only confirmed case on Monday who did not have a travel history.

In light of the growing number of cases in Europe and America, Hong Kong will soon require travellers from the US and most of Europe to be placed under home quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the city.

Nip denied the government was late in bringing those in Hubei back, with global attention having moved from the mainland to the global pandemic.

Further chartered flights could be arranged to bring those in western parts of the province, namely Yichang and Enshi, back to the city, according to the minister, who said the government had considered using airports other than Wuhan Tianhe International Airport.

But some Hongkongers further afield were dismayed, having missed out on this round of flights.

A mother of two, who gave her surname as Chan, said she was disappointed that the government had not included Huanggang, a city about a 1½-hour drive from Wuhan. She is trapped in the city and one of her two sons, a three-year-old, has asthma and is running low on medicine.

“We once run out of food, medicine and milk power but we made it though – all we’re only hoping for is that the government will bring us home,” she said. “Even when we run low on food, adults will give the food to the children ... I’m so disappointed we are not coming home soon.”

But Chan said she was told by the Immigration Department that her case was not high priority.

The first group of 469 Hubei evacuees, except one confirmed as infected, will be able to leave government quarantine camps from Thursday night, freeing up capacity in the facilities for the new returners.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung and Sum Lok-kei

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