Politics

Canada prepares charter flight to bring home Canadians in China affected by coronavirus outbreak

Canada has secured a charter aircraft to bring home Canadians stranded in the coronavirus-affected region of China, but people who are already infected will not be allowed to board.

Chief Public Health Officer says patients already infected will not be permitted to board

Medical workers in protective gear talk with a woman suspected of being ill with a coronavirus at a community health station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province on Monday. (Chinatopix/The Associated Press)

Canada has secured a charter aircraft to bring home Canadians stranded in the coronavirus-affected region of China — but people who are already infected will not be allowed to board.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Chinese authorities will not allow anyone who may be infected to get on the plane.

"No cases, and no sick people, will be leaving that city," Tam said during an appearance before the House of Commons health committee Wednesday.

Tam said China has diagnostic tools to determine if someone is infected. Because the incubation period is anywhere from one to 14 days, she said there are "meticulous" measures in place to isolate individuals from other passengers if they develop symptoms during the flight.

Asked if Canada is considering asking people on the flight to self-isolate upon their return to Canada as a precaution, Tam said it's crucial to secure the public's full cooperation with measures to contain the virus. That means avoiding stigmatization and any measures that go beyond scientifically sound measures to protect public safety, she said.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Chinese authorities will not allow anyone who may be infected with coronavirus to board a plane out of Wuhan. 1:40

Saying public health authorities have to strike a balance between public safety and individual liberty, Tam said "restricting someone's freedom, essentially to be moving about in a community, after return ... I think that is not something we would take lightly."

Tam and Health Minister Patty Hajdu have maintained the risk to Canadians remains low. Tam said that assessment is based on the small number of cases that have been exported from China, and the fact that the most severe illnesses or deaths resulting from the novel coronavirus have involved older patients with underlying conditions.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced today the government has chartered an aircraft to repatriate Canadians and is now working on the diplomatic front to organize the flight — work which could take several days because the affected region is in a "lockdown."

He said 160 Canadians have requested consular services to date.

"We have to work with the Chinese authorities to deal with the logistical side of things," he said, adding that Canada is coordinating with other countries on the process.

Facing criticism from some stranded Canadians about a lack of consular assistance, Champagne insisted that Canada is at the "forefront" of the response.

Champagne said Global Affairs also has issued a new travel advisory telling people to avoid all non-essential travel to China. Earlier this week, the department warned against all travel to Hubei province, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Air Canada announced today it was suspending direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai until Feb. 29.

Champagne said he could not confirm whether any of the Canadians requesting repatriation are sick, or are showing symptoms of the virus.

Hajdu said she could not state yet if returning Canadians might be required to go into quarantine. She said the government will take steps to protect the health and safety of Canadians at home and abroad, but could not specify what those measures will involve.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Health Minister Patty Hajdu provide an update on the coronavirus outbreak in China, including that a plane has been secured but now awaits logistical and consular details to be worked out. 2:11

"Part of the process now is figuring out exactly what our protocols will be when we return Canadians that wish to come home," she said.

"We're working very closely with our U.S. counterparts, who obviously have some experience in this and have set up some best practices, and we'll be following their lead very closely and we'll have more to say as those processes unfold."

Hajdu said not every Canadian in China requesting consular services wants to come home. Some need help with getting to other regions of China or securing supplies, she said.

Canada is cutting the number of consular staff in China due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Global Affairs Canada announced the reduced staffing at its diplomatic missions in China on Twitter, and in Chinese on the Beijing embassy's social media pages Wednesday. Canadians who need emergency consular assistance are being told to contact the emergency watch and response centre in Ottawa.

More than 6,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported globally — the vast majority of them in China — with 132 related deaths.

Some Canadians trapped in Wuhan, China, due to strict travel restrictions say they're safe but feeling abandoned by their consular officials.

Consular offices were closed Saturday through Tuesday due to the Chinese New Year.

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is looking at ways to help Canadians stuck in China.

"We are working very closely with our consular officials in China. We're listening and concerned about the Canadians who are right now in the affected zone," he said.

Application centres closed

"We will look at what we can do. There are many countries looking at different ways to help out. It is a complex situation, but we're doing everything we can to support Canadians."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the situation regarding Canadians stranded in China is complex, but the government is working with other countries and consular officials to find a solution. 0:20

Patterson Wu, a Vancouver-based Canadian citizen now in Wuhan, said he tried without success for days to reach a consular official. When he finally made contact, the official told him there was no evacuation plan at the moment, and referred him to a Chinese website listing various hospitals.

"I tried to phone them for many days now, but they were on holiday while we were still stuck in the city with the epidemic happening in the country," he told CBC News Network.

"It kind of felt like finally I got something, but at the same time, I kind of felt like, 'This is all I got?'"

Another Canadian from Toronto said he is frustrated with the lack of government help in bringing home his 15-month-old daughter, who is visiting grandparents in Wuhan.

"I'm certainly scared, worried, frustrated with the lack of response that I hear. I feel helpless. There's not much I can do," Richard Fabic told CBC Toronto on Tuesday.  "I missed her before, but now I miss her more."

All visa application centres in mainland China are temporarily closed, and consular offices will be providing only basic services (such as passport renewals) and emergency services such as medical assistance, emergency benefits and missing persons.

'It’s very scary here for anyone stuck in a foreign country,' says Patterson Wu.  6:55

According to the embassy's post, the immigration service will continue to provide services and prioritize the processing of travel documents for customers and permanent residents "who need to travel urgently to Canada for humanitarian and compassionate reasons."

Global Affairs Canada's emergency response centre can be reached by phone at 613-996-8885 or by email sos@international.gc.ca.

The government has launched a website dedicated to the coronavirus and has set up an information hotline.

The World Health Organization announced Wednesday it will convene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee tomorrow to determine whether the current outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

During a news conference in Geneva Tuesday, Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Health Emergencies Program, praised the Chinese government's "laser focus" and committed efforts to control the outbreak and protect public health.

"The challenge is great, but the response has been massive," he said.

There's a lot of misinformation out there about the virus's origins and how it spreads.

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam is scheduled to appear at the House of Commons health committee Wednesday afternoon. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Ryan acknowledged the challenge media outlets face in communicating accurate risk information and holding authorities and institutions to account.

All of the 15 countries that have imported cases, which include Canada, must be at "full alert," he said.

Asked if countries evacuating their citizens from the affected regions could spread the virus further, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said every country can make its own decisions but must prepare for the arrival of new cases. Those countries need to have a "thorough understanding" of their actions, he said.

Several countries have started repatriating their citizens from the affected region in China.

A Japanese flight carrying 206 evacuees home included four people with coughs and fevers. The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital on separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks.

A chartered flight also landed in California today carrying 200 Americans from China.

Stephen Lucas, the deputy health minister and Public Health Agency of Canada President Tina Namiesniowski also took questions at the committee meeting. 

With files from the CBC's Philip Ling

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