More than 80 Britons on an evacuation flight from the Chinese city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak are due to land in the UK on Friday afternoon.
After several delays, the flight – chartered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – left Wuhan at 9.45am local time on Friday, carrying 83 Britons and 27 non-UK nationals, mostly from EU countries.
The flight is expected to arrive at the Brize Norton RAF base in Oxfordshire around 1pm, the FCO said in a statement.
The evacuation came after the UK’s four chief medical officers raised the risk level of the illness from low to moderate and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an international public health emergency.
Chinese health officials said on Friday morning the death toll in the country from the virus had risen to 213, up from 170 a day earlier, with the number of known cases rising from 7,711 to 9,692.
No deaths have occurred outside China, although 82 cases have been confirmed across 18 countries.
The WHO’s announcement led Virgin Atlantic to suspend its flights between the UK and China for two weeks starting on Saturday.
British Airways on Thursday extended its suspension of China flights until Monday.
The British passengers on the evacuation flight – who have mainly been in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province – had to sign a contract agreeing to isolation before they could board the flight, and underwent temperature checks.
On arrival, they will be taken by bus to Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral for a quarantine period of 14 days, where they will be housed in an NHS staff accommodation block with access to the internet.
Anyone with suspicious symptoms will be taken to the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen Hospital, which has a high-level infectious diseases unit.
After the British passengers disembark at Brize, the flight will continue to Spain, where EU countries will process the non-British evacuees.
“It’s welcome news that our evacuation flight has now left Wuhan,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
“We know how distressing the situation has been for those waiting to leave. We have been working round the clock to clear the way for a safe departure. The welfare of those trapped and public safety have been our overriding priorities.”
On Thursday evening, WHO declared coronavirus as an international public health emergency due to fears of the virus spreading to countries with weaker health infrastructure.
After British Airways extended its China flights suspension until Monday, Virgin Atlantic released a statement late on Thursday night saying its China services would cease for a fortnight after the arrival of its flight from Shanghai on Saturday.
“This decision has been made with the safety of customers and staff at the front of our minds,” the airline said.
The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
As of Thursday, 161 people have tested negative for the virus in the UK and 124 people have recovered and have since been discharged from hospital in China.
In a letter following WHO’s announcement, the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland said: “In light of the increasing number of cases in China and using existing and widely tested models, the four UK chief medical officers consider it prudent for our governments to escalate planning and preparation in case of a more widespread outbreak.”
They added that it is “likely” there will be individual cases in the UK, but that they are “confident in the ability of the NHS and HSC in Northern Ireland to manage these in a way that protects the public and provides high-quality care”.
Officials had been working to secure a flight out of Wuhan for British nationals after one planned for Thursday failed to get clearance from Chinese authorities.
Mr Raab said officials had “been working tirelessly” to get citizens out of Wuhan. The PA news agency understands the FCO tried to ensure families can remain together and relatives with dual citizenship are allowed on the flight.
British citizen Chris Hill, who lives in Wuhan with his wife and four-year-old daughter, told PA he refused to take the offered flight as the FCO could not confirm he would be able to bring his daughter Renee with him as she is a Chinese citizen.
“With the current situation and the way the FCO is handling the diplomatic side of things, I’m just losing faith,” Mr Hill said.
The Chinese government does not recognise dual nationality, and it is believed people with Chinese citizenship were unable to leave the affected area.
PA understands the Chinese government later relaxed its policy on whether dual nationals and dependents could board the repatriation flight.