Australia virus evacuees head for island quarantine

By Agence France-Presse

A flight carrying evacuees from the epicenter of the deadly China virus outbreak landed in Australia late Monday ahead of a 14-day quarantine at a notorious offshore immigration detention center.

Passangers arrive at Sydney airport wearing masks after landing on January 25, 2020. (Photo by PETER PARKS / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN) Passengers arrive at Sydney airport wearing masks after landing on January 25, 2020. (Photo by PETER PARKS / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The Qantas charter flight carrying 243 passengers -- including 89 children -- touched down at an Air Force base near the remote Western Australian town of Exmouth.

The Australian citizens and permanent residents on board were due to be flown in smaller planes to Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the flight was late leaving Wuhan due to a "very intensive process to manage the immigration and boarding arrangements" that also included medical checks.

Passengers will be quarantined for at least 14 days in an immigration detention center which gained notoriety as the venue where asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat were detained.

Officials say the evacuees will be held separately from a Sri Lankan family of four fighting their deportation -- the only other residents of the facility.

"The plan is to cohort people in small family groups so that there won't be a full mingling so that the whole group doesn't have to stay if someone does get unwell," chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said.

Australia is just the latest country to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. Japan, the United States, and France are among those that have already sent extraction flights.

Payne said the government was considering sending a second plane to Wuhan to evacuate more than around 300 other Australians.

Australia is also in talks with Pacific nations to help evacuate their citizens, but Payne said any foreign nationals that traveled on an Australian charter flight would also need to be quarantined on Christmas Island.

The virus has infected more than 14,000 people in China and killed more than 360. It has spread to more than 24 countries including Australia, where health officials have so far confirmed 12 cases.

Australia on Saturday barred non-citizens traveling from mainland China from entering the country for at least two weeks, while Qantas said it would suspend flights to Shanghai and Beijing starting February 9.