Politics

Champagne advises Canadians to leave China by commercial means as repatriation effort continues

The federal government is advising Canadians anywhere in China to leave the country by commercial means unless it's essential for them to be there, as it continues to sort out the logistics of a plan to repatriate hundreds of Canadians stuck in the coronarivus-affected region of China.

Government says a 'few dozen Canadians' will be brought home on a U.S. aircraft in addition to charter flight

A worker wearing a protective suit checks the luggage of an evacuee from Wuhan, China, after their evacuation flight landed at an airport in Marseilles, France. Canada has sent a chartered aircraft, which seats 250 people, to the region. (Arek Rataj/The Associated Press)

The federal government is advising Canadians anywhere in China to leave the country by commercial means unless it's essential for them to be there, as it continues to sort out the logistics of a plan to repatriate hundreds of Canadians stuck in the coronarivus-affected region of China.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the passenger list for a charter flight is now set for 211 Canadians so it can be submitted to Chinese authorities 24 hours in advance of departure as required. That flight has been delayed a day by weather, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier Wednesday.

Champagne announced later Wednesday that a "few dozen" Canadians not able to fit on the charter will be allowed to board an American aircraft in Wuhan, China, and leave a few hours after a Canadian charter flight.

Champagne said the Canadian passengers will land in Vancouver and transportation will be arranged to take them on to a Canadian Forces base in Trenton, Ont., to be quarantined.

He said federal officials are working out plans for a second charter flight if more Canadians come forward who want to be repatriated.

Global Affairs has already heightened its travel advisories for China since the outbreak, warning against all travel to the Hubei province of China and against all non-essential travel to other parts of China. Today, Champagne said the government is recommending Canadians already there make arrangements to leave.

"Consistent with our travel advice we're also encouraging Canadians whose presence in China is non-essential to depart via commercial means," he said.

Champagne repeated that advice later in the afternoon, saying the situation is evolving by the hour.

GAC's website was updated today, and now states that for safety and security reasons, "Consider leaving China if your presence isn't essential."

Watch as Champagne urges Canadians to leave China:

Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says the government is encouraging Canadians to leave China unless it is essential for them to be there. 0:30

Other countries, including France and the U.K., have also advised their citizens to leave China.

The number of cases of the new coronavirus has climbed to more than 24,600 worldwide, with close to 500 deaths. There have been five cases in Canada to date — three in Ontario and two in British Columbia.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said various airlines are now reassessing their "economic positions," noting that Cathay Pacific has asked staff to take voluntary leave, raising concerns about the ability of Canadians to be able to return in a timely fashion when they want to do so.

Air Canada has also suspended all direct flights to China, and other major carriers, including British Airways and American Airlines, have either stopped or limited flights.

"The message to Canadians is ... should you not have to be in China, it would be best to come back in a commercial flight," she said.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu explains the government's rationale for asking non-essential Canadians to leave China. 0:48

Champagne said 211 Canadians are now on the first flight manifest, with the remaining spots for the 250-seat plan to be filled with crew, as well as medical and government officials. At last count, 373 Canadians had requested repatriation, but the minister cautioned that the number is constantly in flux.

Canadians stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak who are on the first manifest will have to wait at least another day for an airlift to return them to Canada due to a delay caused by weather conditions.

The first chartered aircraft, which seats 250 people, left yesterday for Hanoi, Vietnam, where it was to remain on standby until it can make its way to Wuhan, China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said weather conditions in Hanoi caused a delay and the plane missed the window for the evacuation, which was to happen at night.

"So everything is delayed by a day. We're hoping to have these families back on Friday. We understand for loved ones here in Canada, for families over there, that it's extremely difficult, but we're doing everything we can to get them home," he said on his way into a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells reporters on Parliament Hill that weather has delayed a flight for Canadians wanting to leave Wuhan, China. 1:15

Champagne said 211 Canadians who were on the flight manifest have been notified of the change. The government is still considering a "range of options" for other Canadians trapped in the region, including sending a second plane.

Trudeau said the risk to Canadians remains low.

"We continue to be reassured that the transmission vectors haven't evolved at this point, but we're of course paying close attention to it," he said. 

"But right now the risk to Canadians is still low. We have a strong handle on this, on these concerns, and we're going to continue to keep Canadians safe."

Quarantine plan

Officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Department of National Defence repeated that message as they provided details on the evacuation and quarantine plan Wednesday at the House of Commons health committee.

Safeguards in place include masks, gowns and other protective gear on board the plane, and a plan to isolate a passenger if they experience symptoms during the flight, officials said.

Once at the Yukon Lodge on the Trenton base for the two-week quarantine, returnees will be monitored and transferred to public health authorities if they experience any symptoms.

The 280-single room area could accommodate 300 or more people depending on family groupings, but defence officials are also scouting out other possible facilities.

"We are continuously forward-planning, contingency planning, so in addition to having a strong understanding of the resources that are available in Trenton, we are conducting a stock-take of infrastructure and accommodations at Canadian Forces bases throughout Canada," he said.

Other Canadians are also under quarantine due to the coronavirus. Princess Cruises has confirmed 251 Canadians are aboard a quarantined cruise ship where there's been a confirmed outbreak of coronavirus off the coast of Japan.

So far, 10 people from the ship have tested positive for coronavirus and have been taken ashore to hospital, but none of the Canadian passengers have tested positive in the first phase of screening.

Trudeau said the government is working to get more information about that situation.

"We're very much engaged … we are alert and engaged in their issue and trying to work with families at home to reassure them as well," he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on countries to contribute to a $675 million US ($897 million Cdn) fund needed to help countries around the world prepare for and deal with the virus, warning "invest today, or pay more later."

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the relatively small number of cases outside China means there's a "window of opportunity" to prevent the outbreak from becoming a broader global crisis.

WATCH | Petal Wang passes through a checkpoint at Wuhan airport to find the flight to Canada is delayed:

Petal Wang passes through a checkpoint at Wuhan airport to find the flight to Canada is delayed. 0:28

Hajdu has said if a second Canadian plane is needed, the process likely will be much faster than it was for the first aircraft. At the earlier stages of the outbreak, there were relatively few Canadians who had registered as being in the region and the government thought they could be extricated using allied partners.

Extensive screening measures

Hajdu said travellers showing symptoms of coronavirus or other respiratory illnesses will not be allowed to board the Canadian plane as a precaution, and there will be various levels of screening and monitoring throughout the process. If anyone develops symptoms during the flight, they will be separated from others on board.

China's policy is to only allow foreign nationals travelling on foreign passports to leave the country, as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus. China made an exception to allow permanent residents of Canada and Chinese citizens to leave if they're accompanying a child who is a Canadian citizen.

With files from the CBC's Jennifer Walter, Catharine Tunney

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