5 Feb 2020

Evacuating Wuhan: One person stopped from boarding flight to NZ

1:34 pm on 5 February 2020

One person was stopped from boarding the Air New Zealand flight from Wuhan this morning after being screened pre-flight because they were unwell.

Air New Zealand shared this image of the Boeing 777-200 for Flight NZ1942 on the ground in Wuhan.

Air New Zealand shared this image of the Boeing 777-200 for Flight NZ1942 on the ground in Wuhan. Photo: Supplied by Air NZ

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement about 60 people who registered for the flight did not arrive at the airport and did not give notice. Some who registered earlier chose not to take the flight and took themselves off the list.

The number of evacuees on board the flight has now been finalised at 190, from 11 countries other than New Zealand. Another eight consular and health staff are on board.

Early today, the government-chartered Air New Zealand flight NZ1942 finally took off from the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, bound for Auckland.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed to RNZ the flight took off at 6.45am (NZT).

The 190 evacuees are from:

  • 54 New Zealand citizens and 44 New Zealand Permanent Residents on Chinese passports
  • 23 Australian Citizens and 12 Australian Permanent Residents on Chinese passports
  • 17 Timor Leste
  • 17 Papua New Guinea
  • 8 Britain
  • 5 Samoa
  • 4 Tonga
  • 2 Fiji
  • 1 Kiribati
  • 1 Federated States of Micronesia
  • 1 Uzbekistan
  • 1 Netherlands

The 35 Australian passengers will be transferred by flight to Australia once they land in Auckland, which is due after 6pm tonight.

All other passengers, including Foreign Affairs and Health Ministry staff, will be placed into quarantine for two weeks in Whangaparaoa.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is encouraging New Zealanders who are still in China and want to leave to contact airlines. Chinese airports outside of the Hubei province are still open.

Air New Zealand's chief pilot David Morgan said there was a slightly extended turnaround in Wuhan, just over four hours and 20 minutes.

"We had planned about around about a two-and-a-half hour turnaround, however ... the aeroplane is on its way to Auckland now and should be arriving later this evening," Morgan said.

Health checks and border control contributed to the delays, as well as issues with landing a plane at an airport Air New Zealand did not normally operate out of.

"We're just so pleased on the behalf of Air New Zealand, that those people who wanted to get to the airport, did. But I don't know exactly if there was anybody who couldn't make the airport or were stopped at the border."

Morgan said Air New Zealand was in constant communication with the crew and had received a report that everything on board was normal.

Running the gauntlet

Lily Gao and her two-year-old daughter Elysse at the Wuhan airport, waiting to be evacuated by a government-chartered flight.

Lily Gao and her two-year-old daughter Elysse at the Wuhan airport, waiting to be evacuated by a government-chartered flight. Photo: Supplied/Lily Gao

Lily Gao, who RNZ has been speaking to for over a week as she's made plans to escape the locked-down city, was held up at a checkpoint with her two-year-old daughter for over three hours, while another Auckland woman decided that running the gauntlet to the airport wasn't worth the risk.

Clutching her letter of support from the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, Gao and her daughter set off from her parents' house in Wuhan five hours before they were supposed to be at the airport - a drive that usually takes around 60 minutes.

They had to cross four checkpoints, where their documents were checked and temperatures taken. At one, local government officials told them they didn't have the necessary permissions from Chinese authorities.

"We called the New Zealand Consulate in Beijing and they called the Chinese authorities. Then the Chinese authorities called the local police station," she said. "Finally they let us pass through."

Gao, who is 12 weeks pregnant, spoke to RNZ as she waited for her boarding pass at the airport, and she was confident she'd be able to get on the plane.

She couldn't wait to get back to New Zealand. Nor could her daughter, Elysse.

"Elysse is quite excited to get home. She needs her daddy, she needs her friends, she also needs her teachers in her childcare."

A mere hour-and-a-half before they were due to be at the airport, Auckland woman Victoria Chen and her one-year-old son finally received a permit allowing them to travel through the city.

They were making their way there when RNZ spoke to Chen. They'd already been through six checkpoints and she was confident they'd make the plane.

"I just got the permit at 2.30pm and... I'm on my way, heading to the airport. It [takes] another two hours driving and we are in a traffic jam but... I'm going to make it, it should be fine," she said.

Each passenger is being asked to pay $500 for the flight and they're only allowed to take 10kg of carry-on luggage each.

Another woman, who wished only to be referred to as Mrs Wu, decided against doing the trip because of the risk it would pose to her eight-year-old son.

"Considering our situation, we decided to stay in Wuhan. There's a certain group of people who probably don't know they have been exposed to the virus and whether they will be infected," she said.

"My son has definitely not been exposed to the virus [so] it's safest for him to stay at home at this stage. Once he goes out and travels there's no guarantee whether he will be infected or not."

Anxious wait for families

Meanwhile, families of those in Wuhan are anxiously waiting for their loved ones to return.

Once they arrive they'll be required to spend two weeks in isolation at a military training camp on Auckland's Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

Harry Li, whose six-year-old son is in Wuhan, plans to join him in quarantine after the flight from China lands today.

"I just want to see my child as soon as possible. I'll stay in quarantine with him for 14 days - he must be a bit fearful on his own," he said.

"He is still young. I'm preparing all sorts of things these days for the quarantine - things to eat, clothes to wear and what I should do with him during these 14 days."

Li managed to arrange for his son to be accompanied on the flight into Auckland.

The plane is scheduled to land at Auckland Airport at about 6.30pm today.

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