Britain’s Foreign Office issued a more blunt warning to its citizens on Wednesday. “If you’re in China and able to leave, you should do so,” it said.
As of Wednesday morning more than 20,704 cases of the virus have been confirmed, including 20,492 in China and 13 in Australia. So far 490 people have been killed and 727 have recovered. In Wuhan, an exhibition centre, a convention centre and an indoor stadium have been converted into quarantine facilities to deal with the influx of patients, adding 3400 beds on top of two new hospitals built in a week.
The health and economic contagion has also hit the major centres of Beijing and Shanghai. Following the lead of Ikea, Nike has closed half of it stores and mask shortages have been reported across the country as residents shelter in their apartments. Macao, the world’s largest gambling den, has closed its casinos for two weeks. Hyundai, the South Korean car giant, said on Tuesday it was suspending production due to supply-chain issues caused by the virus.
Mr Morrison said those Australians who left China now would still be forced to self-isolate for the 14 day quarantine period. The government is aiming for a third plane flight to leave Wuhan over the weekend, but only the 350 Australians estimated to be trapped in Hubei are eligible for the evacuation to Christmas Island.
The first group of 241 evacuees arrived at the island’s detention centre on Tuesday. The Prime Minister confirmed 35 Australians were now on a second evacuation flight run by Air New Zealand. Those evacuees will stop over in Auckland before being transported another 7,452 kilometres to Christmas Island.
Mr Morrison rejected claims by the Chinese embassy on Tuesday that it had not been informed of the decision to stop non-Australian permanent residents and their immediate family travelling from China from entering the country. The move, taken on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer to stop the spread of the disease, has thrown the travel and study plans of tens of thousands of tourists and students into chaos.
“There’s a global virus and we’re seeking to contain the virus and, unfortunately, there will be instances where there will be inconveniences for those who would have been in transit and travelling,” said Mr Morrison.
“That’s regrettable but you have to put Australia’s national interests first.”
The Chinese embassy’s deputy head of mission, Wang Xining, said on Wednesday he understood the anxiety of the Australian government but the response to the epidemic needed “to be reasonable” and that he was “not alerted” before Saturday’s ban came into force.
Mr Morrison said he would “respectfully disagree” with Mr Wang’s version of events and that multiple unsuccesful efforts were made through mobile and landline phones to contact the embassy half-an-hour before the public announcement.
“I understand contact was ultimately made when that call was returned about five minutes into my [press conference] on the issue,” he said. “We took this decision swiftly on Saturday. Every best effort was made by the Australian Government to contact in good faith.”
Mr Morrison praised the Chinese community’s “magnificent” response to the crisis in Australia after xenophobic misinformation spread through social media suggested Australian suburbs with a high-proportion of Chinese residents be avoided.
Mr Morrison said the provocations were reprehensible.
“You are observing and taking so seriously your responsibilities together with all Australians to ensure that we’ve been so far quite successfully able to contain the impact of the coronavirus within Australia,” he said.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra