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Crosswinds hold up chartered flight taking Canadians from Wuhan

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne makes his way to update reporters on the the evacuation of Canadians from China following caucus in Ottawa, Wednesday, February 5, 2020.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
February 05, 2020 - 3:30 PM

Canadians due to be evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan should keep making their way to the airport if they are already en route, even though their flight out of the centre of the new coronavirus outbreak has been delayed, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday.

The flight that was scheduled to fly out of China on a government-chartered plane early Thursday morning local time, but Champagne said crosswinds kept the plane from leaving Hanoi, Vietnam, where it and its crew have been waiting. It missed the narrow period each day that China has allowed for international evacuations out of the country.

"We've missed the window by about four hours due to winds," Champagne said during a brief update on Parliament Hill.

"The Chinese authorities to my knowledge have not allowed any country to evacuate their people in the daytime because they're using the airspace in the daytime to bring food and medical supplies. So all of this happens in the nighttime."

While that meant the evacuation flight would be delayed by about 21 hours, Champagne said anyone already headed to the airport should continue to ensure they could get through the numerous "control points" that have been set up in Wuhan and arrive on time. China has all but locked down the city where the new coronavirus was first detected to try to keep it from spreading.

He said there are 211 passengers expected on the flight and all had been contacted.

At the same time, Champagne encouraged Canadians anywhere in China on non-essential business to leave on commercial flights "while they remain available," noting the situation on the ground has been changing by the day.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu noted there is some concern about the future availability of commercial flights out of China as the quarantine in Hubei province, at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, drags on.

She mentioned a recent decision by Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific to ask its staff to voluntarily take three weeks of unpaid leave.

"Those kinds of things raise some concerns about Canadians being able to return in a timely fashion," Hajdu said Wednesday.

More than 500 people have died and tens of thousands have been infected, the vast majority in China but increasingly outside the country as well, since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV was first reported to the World Health Organization in December.

News of the delayed evacuation flight came as the government was also reaching out to 251 Canadians stranded aboard a cruise ship in Japan. The Japanese government quarantined the vessel after a confirmed case of coronavirus was discovered on board.

"We have our mission in Tokyo, which has been in touch with the Canadians passengers to offer them consular assistance," Champagne said. "And we will look to the cruise line, in this case, to repatriate those Canadians when the quarantine ... is finished."

Champagne also said the government is still weighing its options for taking more Canadians out of Wuhan once the first flight has left, including whether it should send a second plane or can secure enough space on flights organized by the U.S. and other allies.

The delayed evacuation flight was to carry 211 Canadians out of Wuhan, but Champagne said 373 people had asked the government for assistance in leaving the city.

"We are talking to allies — the United States, the U.K., for example — on additional seats," he said. "And as you know, we bought an option for a second plane. ... We want to make that the most effective and get people as quickly as possible out of China."

The flight delay was a good thing for a New Brunswick family hoping to get out.

Kate Schellenberg said her twin brother Michael have been hunkered down in Honghu, near Wuhan, with his wife Summer Wu and their one-year-old son Felix.

The family was informed they had a spot on the plane out to Canada, Schellenberg said, but they were having trouble getting to the airport because the Chinese government was requiring a special permit to leave Honghu.

The family had been talking to officials in Ottawa, hoping to sort out the matter.

"It's really hard being so far away and not knowing what's going on," said Schellenberg, who is a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. "I'm frustrated that there's so much red tape."

She said her brother has taken all precautions to ensure Felix is safe, but they are worried that he might get sick because he's "so little."

"They've been inside of an apartment for three weeks. There's not more they can do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2020.

— With files from Laura Osman

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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