Australia evacuates more than 200 people from China as virus deaths rise

Qantas aircraft on the tarmac in Australia. The Qantas Airways aircraft used in the evacuation has medical grade air filters, which eliminate 99 per cent of particles, including viruses. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne said 243 citizens and permanent residents evacuated Wuhan on Monday (Feb 3) on an Australian government-chartered aircraft, fleeing the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak which has killed 361 people.

The 243 people will be quarantined in a detention centre on a remote island in the Indian Ocean off Australia's northwest coast. The Australian-run centre has in the past been used to detain asylum seekers.

"We have prioritised vulnerable and isolated Australians which is reflected in the fact that 89 of the Australians on the flight are under 16 and five are under two," Ms Payne told reporters in Canberra.

All passengers and crew were being given masks and hand sanitiser, and the crew were being told to remain on the upper deck of the plane other than for manning the doors.

The aircraft has medical grade air filters, which eliminate 99 per cent of particles, including viruses, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.

"It's a lot safer, a lot cleaner than being in a restaurant, in an office," he said.

The Qantas Airways plane had been scheduled to leave Wuhan late on Sunday, but experienced some delays as China checked the temperatures of those departing.

The Qantas flight will go to an air force base in Western Australia, from where the government will fly the passengers to Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean 1,500km from the mainland, where there is a controversial immigration detention centre.

Ms Payne said the evacuees will be transported to Christmas Island on Australian military flights.

Wuhan in Hubei province has been in lockdown to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed 361 people. The first death from the virus outside China was reported on Sunday in the Philippines.

There were 600 Australians registered in the Hubei region as of last week, and Ms Payne said Canberra would consider further evacuations if needed.

Australia on Saturday followed the United States in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China and raised its travel warning for China to the highest level, advising people against visiting the country at all.

The move stoked concern about the Australia-China relationship, which has deteriorated in recent years, but Ms Payne said Beijing understood Canberra's rationale.

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