31 Jan 2020

Wuhan evacuation plans 'almost wheels up' - Winston Peters

5:53 am on 31 January 2020

The evacuation of New Zealanders from Wuhan may be just days away with Foreign Minister Winston Peters saying a charter plane is "almost wheels-up" pending final sign-off.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The plan, though, is still a "movable feast" and there are major questions about who will be allowed to board the 300-seat Air New Zealand flight.

As of Thursday, 163 New Zealanders were registered on the government's SafeTravel website as being in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Peters told RNZ "enormous preparations" were under way to assess the demand for the flight and to put in place the screening and quarantine requirements.

"It's very hard to be definitive as to what numbers we're dealing with. We're trying to amass all that information as fast as we can and get the plane in the air," he said.

"I think we're talking [a matter of] days, but don't expect me to be utterly accurate on that - it depends on China's permission."

The United States managed to evacuate its diplomats and other citizens from Wuhan earlier this week.

Other countries - including Australia and the United Kingdom - have run into difficulties getting official clearance, but Peters said he hoped Chinese authorities would have developed "precedents" by the time New Zealand's plane arrived.

The BBC has reported that multiple British citizens in Wuhan have been told their family members - who hold Chinese passports - cannot leave with them.

Peters - who is also Deputy Prime Minister - confirmed it was up to Chinese authorities whether to allow Chinese passport holders to depart the country.

He said officials were appealing to China to allow the children and partners of those with New Zealand passports to be allowed to board the flight.

"We're seeking more information on all those questions as fast as we possibly can," Peters told RNZ.

"Because we're in an almost wheels-up situation ... the moment we know."

New Zealanders living in the wider Hubei province may also run into difficulty getting to the departure point given the complete transport ban across the region.

Peters said people living directly in Wuhan were the immediate focus, but he advised others in the region to stay in close contact with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) staff.

"MFAT will be letting them know what is available. When it comes down to localised transport ... it will be a different situation for each one of them depending on where they are in Hubei."

New Zealand was not considering sending a second plane, Peters said, but "anything's possible" given the emergency.

The government this week said it was working closely with Australian authorities on an evacuation plan, with the suggestion New Zealanders might be able to hitch a ride on a chartered Qantas flight.

Peters said Australia had a large number of citizens in Wuhan however, and it now seemed more likely that some of them might fill any empty seats on New Zealand's flight.

Preparations for a quarantine location had not yet been "utterly finalised," but would be resolved before the plane took off from China, Peters said.

Australia plans to hold its evacuees on Christmas Island for two weeks, but CNN reported the United States would not institute a blanket quarantine on its citizens, allowing them to return home after three days under observation at a military base.

Asked whether New Zealand evacuees might be allowed to return to their homes, Peters said "most definitely not".

"We have got to secure the safety of the general population as well here."

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