The Australian government does not know how many of its citizens are caught in the vast quarantine lock-down imposed across China, as it and governments around the world scramble to try to evacuate their nationals.
But it appears increasingly unlikely foreign countries will be allowed to simply extricate their citizens in the face of militarily enforced lockdowns. Indonesia has said it “seems to be impossible”, while Australia has said it “needs to abide by the travel restrictions … placed there for precisely the purpose of containing the coronavirus”.
A hotline for family members of Australian citizens has received 385 calls, but the foreign minister, Marise Payne, has said it was “unwise to speculate” on how many citizens this represented or how quickly they could be brought out.
Payne would not confirm reports there were 100 children among the Australians trapped inside Hubei province, aged from six months to 16.
Australia does not have a consulate in the city at the centre of the outbreak, Wuhan. There are only a handful of trade officials, and diplomats from outside have not been allowed in to coordinate evacuation efforts.
Domestically, school children in NSW who have been in contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus – anywhere in the world – have been told not to attend school for two weeks.
Globally, the outbreak of coronavirus 2019-nCoV has now claimed 80 lives, all of those in China, and the vast majority in Hubei province, the epicentre of the pandemic. There are a further 2,700 people infected across China, with 461 of those in critical condition.
China’s National Health Commission minister Ma Xiaowei said the virus was strengthening and the number of cases was expected to continue to rise.
“According to recent clinical information, the virus’s ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger.”
Cases have also been reported in Germany, France, Finland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Australia, the US and Canada.
In Australia, five confirmed cases have been reported, but tests are ongoing on several more symptomatic people who have recently visited China or been in contact with a confirmed case.
The first four cases in Australia were all men aged between 35 and 59. The fifth case is a 22-year-old student at the University of New South Wales who arrived from Wuhan on 22 January on China Eastern Airlines flight MU749. NSW Health has said she was asymptomatic on the flight.
“The student did not attend any classes at the university and stayed on her own in campus accommodation with no close contact before she was admitted to hospital.”
About 36 million people are covered by travel restrictions in China, centred around Wuhan city in Hubei province.
The Australian government is investigating if it is possible to evacuate Australian citizens from within the quarantine zones.
Payne said it was difficult to give definitive answers on the coronavirus situation, saying the outbreak was a “very serious public health emergency” and a “fast-moving situation”.
“We are looking very closely at what is possible, including consular assistance for people in those areas, and what options there are for helping them with transport out of Wuhan and Hubei province. We’re exploring all opportunities to ensure when it is possible, we can assist their departure.”
The US has already announced it plans to fly its diplomats and other citizens at particular risk of the virus out of Wuhan and directly to the US on Tuesday, while France has indicated it wants to extricate its citizens to another part of China for quarantine. Japan and Indonesia have also said they want to get their citizens out.
But it may not be possible for other countries to simply remove their citizens.
“The travel restrictions placed on the region by Chinese authorities are placed there for precisely the purpose of containing the coronavirus,” Payne said. “We’re very conscious of that and we need to abide by the travel restrictions.”
Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizayah said evacuating foreign nationals now “seems to be impossible”.
“Wuhan is still isolated, meaning we can’t get in and out of the city,” Faizasyah told Kompas.
Payne said she was “unwise to speculate” on how many Australians may be stuck inside the locked down zones inside China, or how long it might take to get them out.
“We don’t have a definitive number on the number of Australians in Wuhan or in Hubei province because it will include a significant number of dual nationals, some of whom may not have travelled on Australian passports, they’ve travelled on Chinese passports for example.”
In NSW, health authorities have instructed any children in the state who’d had direct contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus to stay home from school or daycare for 14 days from the last contact with the infected person.
“14 days represents the internationally recognised incubation period for the disease,” NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said.
“After this time the child is considered to be not be at risk of infection.”
Students who have travelled to Wuhan and Hubei during the school holidays can return to school but should be carefully monitored for symptoms of coronavirus infection.
“The most common symptom is a fever,” Chant said. “Other symptoms include, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath.”
Any person who exhibits these symptoms should be isolated immediately from other people and should seek medical attention as soon as possible, Chant said.
The Australian government’s chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, said there was “no evidence there’s a risk to the Australian public” of a significant outbreak of coronavirus in this country.
“There’s no human-to-human transmission that’s been identified in this country.”
Murphy said that despite large numbers of travellers arriving from China daily in Australia, there was no need for large-scale quarantining of all arrivals.
China’s National Health Commission has said carriers of the coronavirus can be contagious during the incubation period, while being asymptomatic.
But Murphy said that had not been conclusively established.
“It would be very unusual because this virus is similar to the Sars and Mers viruses and they were not infectious before symptoms. The evidence … that we have seen, doesn’t suggest there’s clear proof of that.
“We’re seeking urgent advice from the World Health Organisation and international experts. If that were to be the case, it would have implications for contact tracing.”
The government helpline for medical advice is 1800 022 222. The government hotline for people inside Hubei province or their relatives to call is 1300555135, or +61 2 6261 3305 from outside Australia.