Ottawa has secured spots on a U.S. plane for “a few dozen” more citizens as part of an international coronavirus evacuation from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Wuhan has been identified as the epicentre of an outbreak of a new form of coronavirus that has killed nearly 500 people and infected more than 23,000 others. Over recent weeks, it has spread to more than 20 countries around the world as officials grapple with containment strategies.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke with reporters after question period to say he had received a call from the U.S. State Department earlier in the afternoon, confirming that it would offer up seats on one of its evacuation planes to Canadian citizens for whom there isn’t on the plane the Canadian government has chartered for its own evacuation.
Roughly 370 Canadians in Wuhan have asked for help getting out.
But there will only be room on the Canadian plane, scheduled to leave Wuhan on Friday, for 211.
Champagne said the American plane is scheduled to depart Wuhan only a couple of hours after the Canadian plane, and that if others remain who wish to be evacuated, the Canadian government still has the option of chartering a second plane — though that process will take longer.
The news came just hours after Champagne encouraged all Canadians who do not absolutely need to be in China to leave while they still can, as the spread of the new coronavirus continues to freeze travel options.
“We are advising Canadians whose presence in China is not essential to depart via commercial means while they remain available,” Champagne said.
He was asked what constitutes an “essential” presence — for example, should students at Chinese universities or individuals with businesses there leave?
Champagne would not specify, saying that “I think Canadians would understand” what he means.
Global Affairs Canada also does not define what constitutes non-essential travel.
On its website, Global Affairs Canada states that it leaves that decision up to individuals, who travel at their own risk.
“It is up to you to decide what ‘non-essential’ travel means, based on family or business requirements, knowledge of or familiarity with a country, territory or region, and other factors,” the department states.
Wuhan is home to roughly 11 million people.
But the city and others in the surrounding Hubei province are on lockdown as Chinese officials grapple with the spread of a virus that has sickened more than 24,000 people, mainly within China, and continues to spread around the world.
The Canadian government announced last week it had chartered a plane in response to those requests for evacuation from Canadians.
But it has not yet been allowed into China to pick up the Canadians, who will be quarantined for 14 days at CFB Trenton once they return to Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday morning spoke with reporters about the delay and said weather was to blame.
“There is a narrow window given by the Chinese for flights into Wuhan, and the weather conditions were such that the plane couldn’t take off so everything’s delayed by a day,” he said.
“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.”
Champagne expanded on that, pointing specifically to crosswinds in Hanoi, Vietnam, which prevented the Canadian plane from taking off Wednesday morning with the goal of bringing the Canadians home on Thursday.
He said the same restrictions on travel will apply for any Canadians scheduled for evacuation on the American plane as would be the case for those on the Canadian plane: namely, that no one with symptoms will be allowed to board either aircraft.