Coronavirus: Government in talks with China over flying Britons back from Wuhan

The Government is still negotiating with Chinese authorities over a flight to evacuate British nationals from Wuhan – the city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak – a minister has said.

The Foreign Office has said that the flight will not now take place on Thursday as the Government had hoped.

Nick Gibb, the School Standards Minister, told Sky News: “There are some difficult issues that are being negotiated at very senior levels between the British Government and the Chinese Government.

“Our priority is to ensure the safety and welfare of British nationals in Wuhan and ensure they do return to the UK as soon as possible.”

Mr Gibb said the plan was for them to be taken to an “NHS facility” on their return where they would be kept for 14 days to make sure that they do not have symptoms of the virus.

“It (the flight) is certainly coming to a military base in the UK and then the British nationals will go to the NHS facility for 14 days of quarantine,” he said.

The Government anticipates flying out around 200 UK citizens who have been in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said on Wednesday night that “a number of countries’ flights have been unable to take off as planned.

“We continue working urgently to organise a flight to the UK as soon as possible.

“We remain in close contact with the Chinese authorities and conversations are ongoing at all levels.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) emergency committee is expected to meet on Thursday to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency.

The WHO said the “whole world needs to be on alert” over the new coronavirus outbreak.

Its emergency committee said last week it was “too early” to pronounce a global health emergency.

Dr Michael Ryan, executive director at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said the decision to reconvene was due to the increasing number of cases and evidence of person-to-person transmission of the virus.

He told a press conference in Geneva that the Chinese government deserves “huge credit” for its response and transparency regarding the “extraordinary challenge”.

He said: “The whole world needs to be on alert now, the whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases that come, either from the original epicentre or from other epicentres that become established.”

The number of cases has jumped to 7,711, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) during the 2002-03 outbreak.

The death toll, which has risen to 170, is currently lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.

The first cases in the Middle East have been confirmed as a family-of-four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates.

Four cases have been confirmed in Germany, making it the second European country to report cases after France.

In Australia, officials unveiled plans to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan and Hubei province, with plans to quarantine them in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre.

To date, about 99% of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China.

Dr Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2%, but said the figure was very preliminary.

The WHO has said around one in five cases of coronavirus are leading to severe disease.

Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about coronavirus, including how easily it spreads and how severe it is.

A Downing Street source said it was expecting about 200 British nationals to be returned from Wuhan and they had agreed to be placed in “assisted isolation”.

It came after the Foreign Office updated its advice on Tuesday to warn against all but essential travel to mainland China, saying it may become more difficult for British nationals in other provinces to leave.

On Wednesday, British Airways announced it was suspending all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect, but Virgin Atlantic said its flights between Heathrow and Shanghai will continue to operate as scheduled.

Meanwhile, the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanjing, China, have been postponed until March 2021 due to the outbreak, World Athletics has announced.