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World News

Coronavirus: Australia plans island quarantine as foreigners leave Wuhan



Hundreds of foreign nationals have been evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, as more deaths and cases were confirmed.

Australia plans to quarantine its 600 returning citizens for two weeks on Christmas Island – some 2,000km (1,200 miles) from the mainland.

Japan, the US and the EU are also repatriating their citizens.

President Xi Jinping called the virus a “devil” but said China would defeat it.

An expert from the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) said it could take 10 more days for the outbreak to peak.

The number of deaths from the virus has risen to 132 in China, the NHC said on Wednesday.

The virus is thought to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

It causes severe acute respiratory infection and there is no specific cure or vaccine. A number of people, however, have recovered after treatment.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has closed half of its Chinese outlets, as the economic impact continues to grow.

Who is being evacuated?

Australian evacuees will be held on Christmas Island for two weeks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

The announcement sparked controversy as the island is best known for a recently-reopened immigration detention centre, which was criticised for its conditions.

Currently only housing one Sri Lankan family of four, the facility was built to accommodate more than 1,000 people.

New Zealand will cooperate with Canberra to bring its 53 citizens home alongside the Australian evacuees.

By Frances Mao, BBC News, Sydney

For over a week now, the Australians trapped in Wuhan – many of them children – have been calling on their government to help get them out.

But the announcement of a two-week quarantine on Christmas Island have given many pause for thought.

The external territory – closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland – has long had a bad reputation.

Since 2003, it’s been one of the main places offshore where Australia detains asylum seekers, in conditions criticised by the UN.

But what will happen to the Sri Lankan family of four when others arrive? And are the medical facilities on the island adequate for the evacuees?

Chinese-Australians are also asking why their children are being sent miles away, as opposed to hospitals on the mainland.

Would this happen, they ask, to Australians who were holidaying in the UK?

Some 200 Japanese nationals have been flown from Wuhan and have landed at Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

Around 650 others said they wanted to be repatriated, and the Japanese government said new flights were being planned.

According to Japanese media, several of the returnees were suffering from fever or coughs. All will be taken taken to hospital, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.

They will then be tested in a quarantine ward before they can go home, and will be told not to leave their houses until the results are known.

Also on Wednesday, around 200 Americans – workers from the local US consulate and some US citizens – left the city.

According to CNN, the evacuees might have to stay in isolation in an airport hangar for up to two weeks.

The UK Foreign Office is arranging to evacuate some 200 British people who wanted to leave the area. But some UK citizens have criticised the government, claiming lack of support in returning home.

Can wearing masks stop the spread of viruses?

Separately, two aircraft to fly EU citizens home were scheduled, with 250 French nationals leaving on the first flight.

South Korea said some 700 of its citizens would leave on four flights this week.

It’s unclear whether they will be quarantined, but South Korean media are reporting the government will cover all costs of infected patients. So far, the country has four confirmed cases of the virus.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong announced plans to slash cross-border travel between the city and mainland China.

Wuhan – as well as the wider Hubei province – is already effectively in a lockdown with strict transport restrictions.

What’s the latest on the virus itself?
Confirmations of person-to-person transmission in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan – as opposed to travellers bringing the virus from China – have heightened concern about the spread of the virus.

Leading Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan told Xinhua news agency: “I think in one week or about 10 days, it will reach the climax and then there will be no large-scale increases.”

China agreed for the World Health Organization (WHO) to send international experts to the country.

President Xi met WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing and said: “The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide.”

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