Coronavirus: Ministers urge Britons to leave Wuhan but fail to say if they will provide airlifts after lockdown leaves many trapped

Rob Merrick
Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on 25 January: AFP via Getty Images

The plight of Britons trapped in China by the coronavirus has been plunged into confusion after they were urged to 'get out' – but ministers refused to say they will provide airlifts.

The city of Wuhan and the wider Hubei province have been in lockdown for days as the authorities try to contain the virus, which has so far killed at least 56 people.

The Foreign Office has issued fresh travel advice urging British citizens to leave if they can, but ministers refused – repeatedly – to confirm reports that emergency evacuations are planned.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, said the government was “looking at all options”, while Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay declined four times to explain what would be done.

When he described it as a “fast moving situation”, the BBC’s Andrew Marr replied: “Well, they’re not fast moving, they're stuck.”

The pressure on the government to act rose after the United States – following three confirmed infections in the country – announced it would evacuate its citizens from Wuhan on a charter flight on Monday.

After initially saying British citizens would be left in Wuhan, to avoid spreading the virus to the UK, there was an overnight U-turn after warnings that could amount to a death sentence.

Yvonne Griffiths, a university lecturer from Cardiff, told the BBC her hopes of flying home on Monday were in jeopardy, saying: “I am disappointed at the absolute silence on the issue of how stranded people are going to get home.

“And it seems maybe the British government at the moment has either a lack of concern or a lack of planning in place, I'm not sure.”

Sophie, also from the UK, said she and her British housemate Jason had “been stuck in the house for four days, adding: “We're frustrated by the fact we don't know what's going on.

“It's scary. We've heard the virus can stay in the system for two weeks without somebody showing signs they're sick.”

The Foreign Office is believed to be examining the logistics for an airlift, but ministers played down the idea of rapid action on the Sunday morning political shows.

Asked by Sky News if evacuations were planned, Ms Patel said only: “It’s right that we look at all options and that’s exactly what the government is doing right now.”

Mr Barclay also ducked the issue, saying the government would “continue to monitor” the situation and keep the idea of airlifts “under review”.

In the UK, 31 people have been tested after suspicions they have contracted the virus, but all were found to be negative.

Officials are still trying to trace around 2,000 people who have flown to the UK from Wuhan in the past fortnight.

Mr Barclay denied the government was “bolting the stable door after the horse has left”, but acknowledged it was still “reaching out” to find those people.

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