Permanent residents of Canada with children will be allowed to leave the coronavirus-affected region in Wuhan, China on a government-chartered flight, says Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
During a news conference Monday in Ottawa, Champagne said the Chinese government has agreed to allow some permanent residents with kids to take part in the airlift. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, however, Beijing won't allow permanent residents without children to leave the quarantine zone.
The decision was China's and is consistent with Chinese protocols to allow repatriation of other countries' citizens, Champagne said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu clarified the rule on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Monday, saying that China will only make an exception to allow non-foreigners to leave if they are the guardian accompanying a child who is a Canadian citizen.
"In that case, China has agreed to allow a permanent resident or a Chinese citizen to travel with that child who is a Canadian," she told host Vassy Kapelos.
Hajdu said China continues to take a hard line on other cases in an effort to contain the disease.
Federal officials are now on the ground in Wuhan to coordinate the evacuation of Canadians trapped in the coronavirus-affected region of the country.
Champagne said there are 280 Canadian passport-holders, and 24 others, who want to board the chartered flight. A second chartered plane has been secured to transport people if it is required, he said.
There is still no firm timeline yet for the flight, as Canada is still awaiting final approval from China to enter Wuhan's airspace, which is now closed. Formal identification and flight manifest information is still getting final approval.
"This is a multiple-step process, which takes time," Champagne said.
Staff from the Global Affairs rapid deployment team are already on the ground in Wuhan and in Hanoi, Vietnam, from where the chartered aircraft will leave for Wuhan, he said.
Hajdu said steps will be taken to screen all passengers and segregate them if they begin showing symptoms during the flight. To date, she said, no Canadians in the Wuhan area have reported infection — which would disqualify them from leaving the quarantine zone.
All staff taking part in the airlift will be wearing protective gear.
The federal government will absorb the costs of the airlift and quarantine for the passengers.
"This is what Canadians do. We help each other," Hajdu said. "We've got 300 Canadians stuck in a quarantined city where life is becoming incredibly difficult, if not almost impossible, in some situations."
The number of cases of the new coronavirus has reached nearly 17,500 worldwide; 362 have died. There have been four cases in Canada to date — three in Ontario and one in British Columbia.
Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said developing a vaccine could take up to a year. For now, she said, the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to restrict its transmission.
Tam said China has made "extraordinary" efforts in that regard.
"We have never seen [such] large-scale quarantine measures in modern public health history," she said. "So the world, of course, is waiting to know if it does work."
Tam said that even if the containment efforts do work, the number of cases could continue to climb before dropping because the incubation period lasts up to 14 days, she said.
On Sunday, Global Affairs Canada announced that the Canadians to be evacuated from the Hubei province where the outbreak originated, as well as government officials and air crew involved in the airlift, will be quarantined for two weeks at the Trenton, Ont., military base upon their arrival in Canada as a precaution.
In the House of Commons today, Conservative deputy leader Leona Alleslev asked the government to explain why it's taking Canada longer than other countries to repatriate its citizens.
"What is the holdup? Is the delay on evacuation due to the disastrous state of Canada-China relations?" she asked.
That's "not at all" the case, Champagne replied, saying that the process to assess the needs of Canadians in the outbreak zone, charter a plane and get the required authorizations takes time.
"We will be there for Canadians in Wuhan to be repatriated and I will inform Canadians every step of the way on what this government is doing for them," he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is doing all it can to help support stranded Canadians.
"We're working hard with Chinese authorities in terms of bringing people home as quickly as we can," he said.
"We understand there are many steps, both health and safety steps, that have to be gone through, but we're looking forward to bringing them home soon."
China, Canada 'in communication'
In a briefing Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that China will make arrangements and provide assistance to countries working to repatriate their citizens "following international customary practices and our epidemic control measures." She did not offer specifics on a potential timeframe. "I understand China and Canada are in communication on this," Hua said, according to a translated transcript of the briefing.
Watch: What we know about the new coronavirus so far:
Hua also criticized the United States for imposing international travel restrictions and raising fears. "Most countries appreciate and support China's efforts to fight against the novel coronavirus, and we understand and respect them when they adopt or enhance quarantine measures at border entry. But in the meantime, some countries, the U.S. in particular, have inappropriately overreacted, which certainly runs counter to WHO (World Health Organization) advice," she said.
"I also noted that the Canadian Minister of Health said Canada won't follow the U.S. and impose travel restrictions on Chinese or foreign nationals who have been to China. Canada believes the ban of entry has no basis, which is a sharp contrast to the U.S. behaviours."
Global health emergency
WHO has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, but has praised China for its efforts to contain the virus. Hua said China hopes countries will make "reasonable, calm and science-based judgments and responses."
"In an open, transparent and highly responsible attitude, China will enhance co-operation with the WHO and the international community. We have confidence and capability in winning this battle as soon as possible," she said.
On Monday, senior officials from the departments of Global Affairs, Transport, Border Security and Public Safety appeared before the House of Commons health committee examining Canada's response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Heather Jeffrey of Global Affairs Canada said the government is working to support all Canadians and permanent residents, adding there is no "one-size-fits-all solution."
She said that one of the biggest challenges is clearing hurdles for people to exit the quarantine zone in order to join the airlift.
Paul MacKinnon, executive vice-president of the Canada Border Services Agency, said new signs advising people of symptoms and procedures were erected at the Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver international airports before being added at other major airports across the country. Border service kiosks also introduced new disinfectant procedures and border officers have received training to screen arriving passengers who may be ill, he said.