A plane set to fly hundreds of Australians home from coronavirus-stricken Wuhan has been delayed after Chinese officials refused permission for it to take off.
Passengers were already at Wuhan’s airport when the decision was made, leaving them stranded in the epicentre of the deadly disease.
They were set to be flown to Darwin – where a second quarantine station has been set up – on Saturday morning.
So far, Australia has confirmed 15 cases of the respiratory virus, which has killed more than 630 people and infected 30,000 worldwide.
Australian officials have since rescheduled the flight for 3.15am Sydney time on Sunday morning.
There are already 278 Australians in quarantine on Christmas Island, but they are running out of beds amid concerns the detention centre is not well equipped.
The rescue flight was due to be the latest in a series of missions to save stranded citizens from the disease-stricken city.
Health Minister Greg Hunt had announced an abandoned workers’ village near Darwin would become a second coronavirus quarantine area.
The $600 million Manigurr-ma accomodation village is 30km south of Darwin at Howard Springs, and boasts a 50-seat cinema and a swimming pool.
Patients can while away their time in the library, or get some exercise at the beach volleyball court, cardio and spin room or 2,700 metre running track.
The sprawling site has 875 villas, with 3,500 ensuite bedrooms.
The first Qantas 747 jet carrying more than 100 Australians left Wuhan on February 2, before landing in Western Australia on Tuesday.
Those on board were then ushered onto two smaller planes and taken to Christmas Island for 14-day quarantine period.
The flight was operated by a volunteer team of four pilots and 14 Qantas cabin crew.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said passengers underwent thorough health checks before boarding and wore surgical masks, which were changed every hour.
There was a limited food and beverage service to minimise interaction between crew and passengers and the 747 plane will be thoroughly cleaned afterwards.
Mr Joyce revealed the meals and drinks would be laid out on the seats before the flight departed to avoid crew interacting directly with the passengers.
‘With the passengers, they’re going to be given protective masks. And they’re changed regularly and told how to use them,’ Mr Joyce told the Today Show.
‘On the aircraft, the air is actually replaced every five minutes. And the aircraft have these medical grade filters and this has 20 on board which remove 99% of all particles on the aircraft including viruses. So it’s safer than public transport.’
Mr Joyce said the risky rescue operations took a ‘lot of planning’ and revealed the Qantas staff who volunteered would stay on the upper deck of the jet for the flight.
Officials have sought to reassure those living near the second quarantine station in Howard Springs that they will be safe from the virus.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said: ‘It is important people living in and around Howard Springs know the novel coronavirus can only be transmitted by close contact with an infectious person and cannot be spread through the air.
‘The health and safety of the Howard Springs community is of paramount importance and I am confident the security and public health measures put in place will prevent any risk to the community’s health.’
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said evacuees would be not be charged $1,000 as previously announced, saying it was a mistake to say they would.
People who have been in mainland China since the start of February – excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – are now advised to self-isolate.
Australians are also being told not to travel to mainland China.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on February 1 that foreign travellers who have left or passed through China will be denied entry to Australia.
Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, dependents, legal guardians and spouses, will be exempted from the strict measures, Mr Morrison said.
‘If you’ve been in mainland China from the 1st of February and you’re not an Australian citizen […] do not travel to Australia at this time,’ Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram said.