British Columbia

One family's 'mad dash' to Wuhan airport, life in quarantine and 'relief' at escaping coronavirus epicentre

Lauren Williams says her family had less than an hour to get to the Wuhan airport Friday, after the U.K. Foreign Office suddenly allowed her to fly out of China with her British husband.

Lauren Williams says she and her son were the only 2 Canadians on plane arranged by British Foreign Office

From right, Lauren, Tom and James Williams on their flight from Wuhan, China, to the U.K. (Lauren Williams)

Canadian Lauren Williams says her family had less than an hour to get to the Wuhan airport Friday, after the U.K. Foreign Office suddenly allowed her to fly out of China with her British husband.

Williams, 29, says she and her two-year-old were the only two Canadians aboard the plane that repatriated more than 80 people who had been seeking to leave China amid the growing spread of the coronavirus in the country.

The U.K. ministry, which arranged the plane, told them to bring only carry-on luggage — and to get there fast.

"It was a mad dash to the airport," said Williams, who spoke to CBC News over the phone from a hospital in north-west England, where she's in quarantine with her son James and husband Tom, who works as a principal at an international school in Wuhan.

'I've never seen the airport so empty'

Williams recalls speeding through the empty streets of the city in their car to the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. They weren't stopped at any roadblocks, but they did need permission from Wuhan police to cross certain bridges. 

At the airport, they were checked in manually, as there were no staff at the check-in counters or baggage handlers.

"I've never seen the airport so empty. It was bizarre," said the Langley, B.C., woman, who is eight months pregnant with her second child.

Lauren and Tom Williams hold their son, James. (Facebook)

Williams said some of the passengers had biked to the flight, eager to get out of Wuhan in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the city's lockdown.

There was one earlier British flight with about 11 passengers, and there's one more being scheduled, Williams said.

"People are being told this is quite possibly your last chance if you want to get out," said Williams.

"Some people, they literally came with [only] the clothes on their back."

The flight from Wuhan was initially delayed by a few hours. After the 12-hour flight to a military base in the U.K., the Williamses were bussed another 4½ hours to a small hospital near Liverpool, where they are quarantined.

A special segregated staff unit at the Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, Merseyside, is caring for the couple and their two-year-old son James, along with the dozens of other passengers who were on the flight, until the virus's incubation period is over. The passengers should be cleared to leave in 14 days.

Two-year-old James Williams checks out the plane that he took from Wuhan after landing at a British military base on Friday. (Lauren Williams)

Relieved to be in U.K.

The pregnant mom said she's exhausted, but relieved to be on British soil.

"It was easily the longest and hardest travel day I've ever experienced ... but there is a deep sense of relief for our family," she said.

"We weren't sure that my son and I were going to be allowed on that flight."

As the number of coronavirus infections continue to climb, Williams is eager to hear confirmation that the remaining Canadians in Wuhan and the wider Hubei province can get out.

Global Affairs Canada sent an email to Canadians in the region overnight saying a government-chartered flight is expected to leave the Wuhan airport in the early morning of Feb. 6.

More than 300 Canadians have asked for help getting out of China.

"I think more and more people are thinking, 'We've got to get out of here,'" Williams said.

Tom and Lauren Williams are expecting their second child at the end of February. (Tom Williams)

Local concerns about virus

Williams is relieved that her ordeal is almost over. For her B.C.-born son — who loves planes and flying — the trip home was mostly an adventure, but the dorm-like, indoor-only life the trio are living now is challenging.

Despite being symptom free, every precaution is being taken with them, she said.

However, that hasn't stopped fear of the virus spreading in the nearby community, where some residents are angry that passengers travelling from the epicentre of the virus have been transferred to their local hospital.

"You see the darker side of humanity in newspaper comment sections. But then you see the beautiful side of humanity, with everyone coming together and helping," Williams said.

The support has far outweighed any negative, she said.

Some people even dropped off letters, packages and birthday gifts for the pregnant mom, who turns 30 tomorrow, and hopes to be free of quarantine by Valentine's Day.

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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