LONDON: As our Boeing 747 from the Chinese city of Wuhan touched down at a military base in Oxfordshire on Friday (Jan 31) lunchtime, the overwhelming emotion was concern.
This was no ordinary flight.
The passengers on board had been trapped in a city sealed off from the outside world, shut down by Chinese authorities struggling to get to grips with the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 200 people and spread panic around the world.
Two weeks ago I arrived in Wuhan to cover the virus outbreak for the Financial Times. But what started as a regular assignment quickly turned into a surreal captivity.
LUCKY TO BE EVACUATED
On Friday, 110 people were allowed to leave by air as part of an evacuation effort.
One of my fellow passengers was an unaccompanied three-year-old girl who had been staying with her grandparents in Wuhan while her parents were in the UK. She was cared for on the flight by staff from the UK Foreign Office.
The eldest was Veronica Theobald, an 81-year-old from Lancaster, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and who was taken to the flight in a wheelchair.
Our flight’s departure had been shrouded in uncertainty until the last minute and was originally meant to have left on Thursday morning. When the call came, we only had a few hours to get to a meeting point near Wuhan airport.
Like my fellow passengers I wore a face mask throughout most of the journey.
For other passengers, leaving the centre of the outbreak was mixed with uncertainty about the future and the lives they have left behind. “It’s bittersweet,” Emma Wang, a Chinese national travelling with her British partner and three-month-old baby, told me.
“I like living in Wuhan but the situation there is difficult for us, there’s a lot of sick people,” Dani Carmona, a Spaniard who had been working as a football coach in Wuhan, told me.
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He had to leave his girlfriend behind. “It was a difficult decision,” he said. “Of course, I will come back to Wuhan as soon as I can.”
The cabin crew also wore masks and gloves during the 12-hour flight. One female attendant, who did not wish to be named, revealed that she would not earn extra money for the job.
“I want to help people wherever they’re from,” she said. “We’re on three-month contracts, so it might have been possible to say ‘no’ to doing this flight, but it could have meant losing work in future.”
“I feel it can’t be too dangerous, as the British government wouldn’t put us at risk,” she added.
NO CERTAINTY FOR THOSE LEFT IN WUHAN
As we neared the UK, a Foreign Office official told us that the flight was “nothing short of remarkable” given the logistical issues, including “obstacles thrown by Beijing”.
When we landed there was no clapping or cheering from the passengers, who included 27 EU nationals as well as pilots and a Spanish crew.
None of the passengers on board had shown symptoms of the flu-like coronavirus before boarding, the flight attendants said. And none of the passengers became ill during the time in the air.
After we left the plane, the flight took off again for Spain.
For those of us who disembarked at Brize Norton, two weeks of quarantine await. There is no such certainty for the millions still in Wuhan.