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Australians stranded in China as virus declared global emergency

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The Morrison government still doesn’t have China’s permission to evacuate hundreds of Australians amid the coronavirus crisis, which has now been declared a global health emergency as the death toll in China reaches 212.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Friday officials are still in talks with Chinese authorities to get up to 600 men, women and children out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicentre of the outbreak.

Overnight, the death toll in China jumped from 170 to 212, with the number of confirmed cases leaping from 7000 to 9320 within 24 hours.

No coronavirus deaths have been reported outside China, but there are 98 confirmed cases of infection in at least 18 countries including Australia, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, the United States and France.

The World Health Organisation has declared the disease a global health emergency.

The declaration means there will be a greater focus on a global response, with the WHO fearful of what could happen if the virus reaches countries ill-prepared to cope with high infection rates.

“Australia has been acting in advance of this decision,” Morrison said.

“All of the issues – isolation, case management, contract tracing, prevention of onward spread, active surveillance, early detection – Australia has been doing.’

Human coronavirus with pandemic potential is a listed human disease under the biosecurity act 2015, which enables the government to use “enhanced border measures” to contain outbreaks.

Australia’s Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the world would soon know if containment was realistic.

“It is not yet contained in China but they are making Herculean efforts to do so. It is contained very well in all the countries where it has been exported to, including Australia,” he told ABC television.

The government’s National Security Committee will meet again on Friday to go over preplanning and precautionary measures to battle the virus.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said while it was a very serious situation it was still too soon to close Australia’s borders to air traffic from China.

But Australia is not accepting flights from Wuhan, the outbreak began, despite allowing flights from other Chinese cities.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, has closed its borders to mainland China.

“They are in a very different situation than an island nation like ours,” Dutton said.

“We are not taking flights from Wuhan. And if we need to take further steps beyond that we will.”

Dutton again defended the government’s plans to charge evacuees for part of the cost of their repatriations to Australia and the decision to force them into quarantine on Christmas Island for up to two weeks.

He said costs had been applied to evacuees in the past, noting that not all of the 600 or so Australians who had registered for the airlift would be evacuated.

“Some of them will want to come. Some will decide to stay with family. Some will decide because they have business interests there, that they will stay and ride it out,” Dutton told Nine on Friday.

Christmas Island off the west coast is being readied for the evacuees, once China gives the green light for the government’s mission to get them home.

Medical teams have been deployed but there are concerns large aircraft might not be able to land on the island’s airstrip, which Dutton said might mean landing larger aircraft on the mainland and then “shuttling” evacuees to the island.

Late on Thursday, two Chinese nationals who separately visited Victoria and Queensland were confirmed as Australia’s eighth and ninth confirmed cases.

Authorities are searching for those who may have come into close contact with the two patients while they were infected.

One of the two new patients – a 42-year-old woman from Wuhan – was travelling on the same Tiger Air flight as a 44-year-old man earlier confirmed as Queensland’s first coronavirus case.

There are concerns as many as 171 passengers on that flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast may have been exposed to the infection.

Overnight, Air France-KLM joined other major airlines in suspending flights to China, as cabin crews voiced unease about exposure to the virus.

Cabin crew unions demanded an immediate halt to Air France’s Beijing and Shanghai flights ahead of a works council meeting, staff representatives said on Thursday.

“Air France’s top priority is the health and safety of its customers and employees,” the airline said, adding that flights to mainland China had been suspended until February 9, “after careful consideration of the developing situation”.

The airline joins others including British Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa that have dropped mainland Chinese destinations besides Wuhan, the outbreak’s centre, which is closed to commercial air traffic.

Virgin Atlantic also said on Thursday it would suspend its daily operations to Shanghai from Sunday for two weeks because of the safety of customers and staff and a declining demand for tickets.

Other major carriers have kept flying to China, but protective masks and shorter layovers designed to reduce exposure have done little to reassure crews.

Thai Airways is hosing its cabins with disinfectant spray between China flights and allowing crew to wear masks and gloves.

Delta Air Lines is operating fewer China flights and shorter layovers, with food deliveries so crew can stay in their hotels.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd and Singapore Airlines are sending additional crew to fly each plane straight back, avoiding overnight stays.

-AAP

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