Canadians in Wuhan to be flown out Thursday: government letter

A chartered plane that's to airlift Canadians from the centre of a virus outbreak in China was on its way overseas Tuesday, while its prospective passengers were told to get ready to leave.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the flight will wait in Vietnam for final permission from Chinese authorities to land in Wuhan, an area quarantined to contain an outbreak of a new coronavirus that has killed more than 400 people there.

The plane will be ready to leave hours after it receives the final go-ahead from China, likely sometime Wednesday, he said.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of a letter sent by the government to Canadians and permanent residents of Canada currently in Wuhan. The letter said a flight is to depart from the city's international airport early Thursday morning.

"Due to demand and the restrictions associated with this flight, we cannot guarantee that everyone who is eligible for a seat will be able to board the plane," the letter says.

Though the numbers change by the hour, Champagne said as of Tuesday 308 Canadians have asked for help to leave the country but the plane has room for only about 250 passengers. 

They are being told to arrive at the airport Wednesday evening. The letter says they will be screened for any signs of the virus and those with symptoms will not be allowed to board the plane.

"Chinese authorities will perform health screening and immigration controls before boarding the flight," the Canadian government says.

The letter says passengers must get to the airport themselves and warns of possible delays at checkpoints.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government must be "realistic," about the difficulties families will face in reaching the airport in time.

"The city is under heavy quarantine, including police officers or security outside of buildings to prevent people from coming or going without having any sort of clarity about where they're going," Hajdu told reporters Tuesday.

"So we are working very closely with these families in terms of how they'll navigate their way across this very large city."

Based on the experience of allied countries and previous evacuations in other circumstances, officials expect as many as 20 per cent of those people on the approved manifest will not show for the flight.

The government has already made arrangements to send a second chartered plane to Wuhan if there are enough Canadians left behind, but Champagne and Hajdu would not say how quickly that flight would follow the first.

The letter also says that people should "expect delays" as the check-in experience for the flight will be "significantly different" from what they are used to.

"We recommend you bring some food and water for you and your family for the time you are at the airport waiting to depart," it says. "You will not be able to take the food on the plane."

The new coronavirus has so far killed 425 people in China and two others in Hong Kong and in the Philippines. More than 20,000 people have been sickened in China and at least 180 in other countries, including four in Canada.

During question period in the House of Commons, Conservative MPs demanded more information about the location of the plane that transported the first two Canadian patients with confirmed cases of coronavirus into the country on Jan. 22.

Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux asked if other passengers boarded the plane before it was disinfected, and whether others could have been unwittingly infected.

All 27 people sitting near those patients on the plane have tested negative for the virus, Hadju assured the House before she reprimanded the Opposition for sensationalizing the risk to Canadians associated with the virus.

Ottawa has said that upon arrival in Canada, the evacuees aboard the upcoming flight from Wuhan will be quarantined at the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton for 14 days. The letter says visits from friends and family will not be permitted to prevent possible transmission of the virus.

Richard Fabic, whose 15-month-old daughter, Chloe, is in Wuhan with her grandparents, said the plan by the government to keep families together is thoughtful.

"Looks like they spent the extra time to get it right and (I'm) very appreciative that Chloe has been included on that list to board that plane," Fabic said from his home in Mississauga, Ont.

He said he was emotional after seeing the letter.

"Relief, happiness, exhaustion."

Fabic said he will talk to the government about dropping off diapers and a few toys for Chloe in Trenton, and hopes the place has internet access so he can continue to see his daughter, who took her first steps while in China.

"It took her so long to start walking but now she wants to run," he said. "I can't wait to just bring her to a park and let her run around until she's exhausted."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2020

—With files from The Associated Press

Hina Alam and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press