Coronavirus evacuation flight: How bringing New Zealanders home will work

5:01 pm on 4 February 2020

A government-chartered Air New Zealand plane is set to arrive in Auckland from the novel coronavirus-stricken Wuhan about 4pm on Wednesday with 70 New Zealanders on board.

Watch the latest Health Ministry presser here:

Air New Zealand's chief pilot David Morgan said the passengers on board would be a mix of New Zealanders, Australians and Pacific Islanders. He didn't have a breakdown on the exact numbers.

The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) were organising pre-flight screening for passengers to make sure they were healthy and not showing any symptoms of the virus, Morgan said.

"It's a screening process to make sure that they are asymptomatic. The Air New Zealand medical team are also involved in providing advice to the company with regard to that process. I'm not actually sure of the actual clinical practice but they will be screened," he said.

"The cabin crew and pilot safety is our absolute priority ... what we have determined as a protocol for the crew, particularly the cabin crew who will be engaging with the passengers, is personal protection equipment which will consist of the appropriate surgical masks and gloves. They won't be wearing gowns or anything like that, that's deemed to have been not necessary by the Ministry of Health and Air New Zealand medical staff."

Personal protection for passengers will be up to the individual.

There will be a number of medical staff on board including St Johns crew and a doctor and Air New Zealand's deputy chief medical officer, plus medical equipment on the aircraft.

When the flight arrived at the border there would be a "normal process of facilitation", Morgan said.

"We do know as far as our crew is concerned, given the protocols we have put in place, there will be no extra process for the crew and they will be free to depart."

Asked about the $500 fee being charged for the flight, Morgan said: "It's the government who are imposing the charge ... that's really an issue for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade."

Dr Ashley Bloomfield

At a press conference this afternoon, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said offiicals were still in the process of finalising the number of passengers.

The most recent total of people who had registered for the flight was 263 people, the majority New Zealanders.

Dr Bloomfield said the experience of other similar evacuation flights was the number who actually turned up for the flight was less than the expected number.

Reasons included difficulties getting to the airport and Chinese screening processes.

"We won't know the final number or the balance in terms of nationality until the flight leaves," Dr Bloomfield said.

The flight will arrive at a specially designated gate at Auckland Airport before passengers go through Customs. From there, they would be bussed to the military facility at Whangaparāoa.

The locals there will be at no risk from those people, Dr Bloomfield said.

"They will have a health assessment each day and there will be a health liaison person on site 24/7."

Authorities were also looking at education options for children and people would be able to work remotely, he said.

$500 fee 'petty' - National

National is calling on the government to ditch the $500 fee being charged to evacuees leaving Wuhan, describing it as "petty".

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the cost is "not unreasonable".

Australia recently backed down on its plan to charge people $AU1000 for their evacuation from China and National leader Simon Bridges says New Zealand should follow suit.

"I call on the Prime Minister to do away with the petty fee that we have in place," he said.

"People are trying to get back to their families, their whanau, in New Zealand. I think that's plain wrong [to charge them]."

Ardern told reporters that, to date, no one had raised any complaints with her about the charge.

"This is a much-reduced cost. It's just a small way to contribute to cost-recovery," she said.

"It has been a significant exercise to bring everyone home and these are people who would be paying for a return flight anyway."

Other special flights

Seventeen countries have now run special flights to evacuate foreign nationals from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) medical adviser David Powell said "they will be taking precautions including screening to make sure that people are well when they fly and they will prepare with some degree of personal protection - masks and gloves and so on.

"The most important thing, contrary to popular belief, isn't masks, it's about meticulous hand hygiene because respiratory viruses get transferred more efficiently by touch than by breathing."

IATA had number of guidelines for cabin crew for such situations, he said.

"We've got experience built over the years from SARS, swine flu and so on and they are to do with if somebody is unwell onboard, trying to make sure that person isn't moved away from other people and anyone who is up close and dealing with them temporarily has gloves and masks, but to offer the person who is unwell a mask to wear and to report ahead to the ground-based medical advice and try to make sure the authorities on the ground are aware of them before they arrive."

The industry was well prepared and tested through previous virus outbreaks, Powell said.

IATA supported a WHO approach to coordinating a response to coronavirus and that included its recommendation to not close borders, he said.

"It's not for IATA to comment on individual countries but we certainly favour a joined-up international response and that is what WHO is pushing for."

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