British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China as the Government finalises urgent plans to bring Britons back from the coronavirus-hit province of Hubei.
The airline, which operates daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing from Heathrow, said it was halting the flights with immediate effect after the Foreign Office warned against “all but essential travel” to the country because of the virus outbreak.
A British lecturer stranded in Wuhan city, who described the streets as “deserted”, said UK officials have confirmed a flight will take citizens back to England, while others said this would be on Thursday.
A teacher whose grandmother is stuck in Wuhan told the PA news agency she had been offered a seat.
But he criticised the fact she will have to make her own way home to Lancaster from London once she arrives in the UK.
The deadline for those stuck in the city of Wuhan and surrounding areas to contact the British consulate expressing their wish to leave passed at 3am UK time (11am local time).
In a statement on Wednesday morning, British Airways said: “We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.
“Customers due to travel to or from China in the coming days can find more information on ba.com.”
It comes after the Foreign Office updated its advice on Tuesday to warn against “all but essential travel” to mainland China, saying it may become more difficult for British nationals in other provinces to leave.
Up to 200 UK citizens are expected to want to fly home from Hubei province.
They are being told by the Government to “self-isolate” for 14 days after they arrive in the UK, but there are no plans to forcibly quarantine them.
Kharn Lambert, whose 81-year-old grandmother Veronica Theobold, has been stranded in Wuhan with a dwindling supply of medicine for her lung condition, said she was booked on a flight on Thursday.
He told PA: “We’re not sure what time the flight will leave yet. She got a seat almost straight away because of her condition.
“She is relieved, so am I, but she’s frustrated with the restrictions being put in place. She can only take 15kg of hand luggage and she came here with about 30kg of stuff.
“She also has to make her own way from the airport in London to Lancaster and then self-isolate for 14 days. That’s after she potentially comes into contact with hundreds of people on her way — it is ludicrous.”
Lecturer Yvonne Griffiths, who is currently in a hotel in Wuhan, said she received news in the early hours of Wednesday morning that there is to be a flight from Wuhan airport to England.
She told BBC Breakfast that Stansted is a possible destination, but that has not been confirmed and timings had not been been firmed up either.
“And we’ve to be on stand-by so that we can go to the airport very early,” she said.
“We’ve to be there six to seven hours before the flight leaves, and we would have a screening from some health people here in Wuhan, and if we are not showing any symptoms then we’ll be able to board that plane.
“If we were to be suffering temperature or any other symptoms, breathing problems, then there seems to be a possibility of quarantining at this end.”
The lecturer told the programme: “It has been frustrating up until today. I think the lack of certainty about the time of this flight isn’t so worrying as long as we know that it’s going to happen.
“Prior to that, we had quite a long period of silence from the UK Government about whether there was going to be any contingency plan to get people home.”
A British teacher living in Wuhan, who asked not to be named, told the PA news agency that a number of other Britons she was in contact with had arranged to return home, with some scheduled on a flight at 7am on Thursday.
The death toll in China from coronavirus has risen to 132, with confirmed infections surging to nearly 6,000.
Four cases have been confirmed in Germany, making it the second European country to report cases, after France.
In Australia, officials unveiled plans to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, with plans to quarantine them in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre.
The Department of Health and Social Care said on Tuesday that 97 people in the UK have been given the all-clear for the virus, although scientists predict it may have already entered the country.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said officials are “working urgently” to get Britons out of Hubei province.
He added: “Due to the increasing travel restrictions and the public health situation, we now advise against all but essential travel to China.”
The Foreign Office has said UK nationals in China should “make decisions based on their own personal circumstances” over whether to leave other parts of the country.
Following the latest Foreign Office travel advice, consumer group Which? said people with trips to China planned should be covered for cancellations by their travel insurance.
Adam French, from the organisation, said those already in the country should be entitled to be flown out or be compensated for any changes to their itinerary.