Politics

Airlift departs Wuhan to repatriate Canadians from China's coronavirus outbreak zone

A chartered aircraft has departed Wuhan, China to bring home Canadians stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Global Affairs Canada.

Dozens more Canadians will return by taking seats on American flight later today

Megan Millward, her husband Lie Zhang and their two children on board an evacuation flight from Wuhan, China. (Submitted by Megan Millward)

A chartered aircraft has departed Wuhan, China to bring home Canadians stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, Global Affairs Canada has confirmed.

After the aircraft departed, a government official confirmed there are 176 passengers on board.

There were 211 people on the initial manifest for today's flight, which was delayed by one day due to bad weather in Vietnam, where the aircraft was pre-positioning to go on to Wuhan. Of those, 194 had indicated they intended to be at the airport for the flight, including 34 minors and 13 permanent residents.

In an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said it's possible that some of those 18 who didn't ultimately board may have been prevented from doing so because they were showing signs of illness.

"But it could also be that they changed their mind at the last minute," she told host Vassy Kapelos.

"It's a big decision for people. There might be situations where there is a family member left behind that's in hospital. There might be situations where someone is studying or working. I think we'll have better clarity as the days evolve."

During a news conference Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the Canadian flight is expected to arrive in Trenton, Ont. in the early hours Friday morning after a stopover in Vancouver.

"That was truly a whole of government effort and while we are not there yet, I would like to recognize the hard work of the incredible public servants who made this complex operation happen to help Canadians in need," he said.

Champagne said a small number of people did not show up for the flight because they changed their minds at the last minute. Between this flight and spots set aside for Canadians on a subsequent American flight, two-thirds of the Canadians who want to come home will be repatriated.

A second chartered flight carrying the remaining Canadians will leave Wuhan on Monday, Champagne said.

Before boarding the aircraft, passengers must undergo multiple layers of screening by Chinese and Canadian authorities. Anyone who shows symptoms of illness will not be permitted to board.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke to reporters Thursday in Ottawa 2:26

National defence and public health officials will be on board and will take steps to isolate anyone who becomes ill during the flight.

About 50 Canadians who couldn't find seats on the charter flight will be allowed to board an American aircraft in Wuhan that is scheduled to leave soon after the Canadian charter departs, Champagne said. 

Those passengers will land in Vancouver and a government-chartered plane will take them to the Canadian Forces base in Trenton, Ont.

The returning passengers from both flights will be under quarantine for 14 days at the base.

Canadians repatriated from Wuhan, China will be quarantined at CFB Trenton east of Toronto. (The Canadian Press)

Hajdu said returning passengers will be assessed daily by medical professionals.

"The national microbiology mobile lab will be on site to test any symptomatic travellers and there will be general help provided to all travellers that includes clothing, food, diapers and games," she said.

Noting that it has been a "scary" and "very stressful" time for the evacuees, Hajdu said emotional and mental health support services also will be available.

Hajdu said on Power & Politics that the decision to quarantine was made to protect public health, noting that about 70 per cent of the cases of the new coronavirus stemmed from Wuhan.

"Out of an abundance of caution, this seems like a prudent course for us to take," she said.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, wrote to Justice Minister David Lametti asking that individuals under quarantine be given access to independent legal counsel, recognizing their right to be free from arbitrary detention and to liberty and due process.

"It is unrealistic to expect them to arrange for their own lawyers to attend at a hospital or at Trenton, if that were even possible," he said. "The greater likelihood is that they may be denied legal counsel whilst their liberty is affected by quarantine."

Richard Schabas, Ontario's former chief medical officer, said he is skeptical about the practical effect of a quarantine, which he calls an "ancient" disease control strategy.

"It's a concept that almost has no place in modern public health because it just doesn't work," he told CBC News Network. 

Short of a vaccine, which could take up to a year to develop for the novel coronavirus, case identification and case isolation are the best ways to interrupt the virus, he said, adding that the outcome will depend largely on the strength of the virus.

Advice for Canadians in China

The federal government is advising all Canadians in China to leave the country by commercial means unless it's essential for them to be there. Several airlines have suspended or limited their flights to China.

Global Affairs heightened its travel advisories for China after the outbreak, warning against all travel to Hubei province and against all non-essential travel to other parts of China.

GAC's website has been updated and now states that, for safety and security reasons, Canadians should "consider leaving China" if their "presence isn't essential."

Champagne repeated that advice again Thursday. "It's just common sense," he said.

There are now more than 28,000 reported cases of the novel coronavirus around the world; most of the cases are in China. As of Friday, the death toll in China reached 636, according to the country's National Health Commission.

In Canada, there have been five confirmed cases — three in Ontario and two in British Columbia — and public health officials say the risk to Canadians remains low.

Canadian officials are at the airport in Wuhan, China, to organize the repatriation of Canadians who were trapped in the coronavirus epicentre. (Submitted by Min Irwin)

With files from Philip Ling

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