A British man on the ‘last direct flight from China to the UK’ has slammed the Government as ‘passive’ after he was able to stroll through Heathrow without being screened for the deadly coronavirus.
London-born Navjot Singh, 40, and his family boarded Air China plane from Chengdu last night after becoming stranded while visiting his Chinese wife’s parents for the Lunar New Year.
The couple and their two-year-old daughter were left to fend for themselves when all three of their return flights were cancelled – as major airlines scrambled to prevent the virus spreading on British soil – and the Foreign Office refused to help.
When they touched down at Heathrow they were able to walk straight through customs without being checked for the virus – sparking fears the Government is not taking the threat of an outbreak seriously.
Mr Singh told MailOnline: ‘The senior cabin crew told me that Air China is suspending all flights to the UK from Chengdu at least, but not sure if the same will apply from other Chinese cities or other Chinese airlines.
‘We had to take Shanghai to Chengdu to Heathrow as all other flights were cancelled or suspended. I believe the attitude towards this virus is a very passive one in the UK, you just have to see the attitude of the people here. We landed at Heathrow and nobody is wearing masks, and there are no posters or anything warning people how to report any symptoms to someone.
‘While the Air China cabin crew did temperature checks and asked all passengers to fill in health forms, the most shocking thing was that nobody at UK Border Force at Heathrow arrivals checked anyone’s temperature, there were no leaflets, no information to warn passengers, nothing.’
The Foreign Office yesterday told all 30,000 UK nationals stuck in mainland China to return to the UK in a desperate bid to protect their health as the epidemic’s death toll surged to nearly 500 and infections soared to more than 24,500.
But the announcement was met with fury as it emerged all evacuees outside of Wuhan – the city at the centre of the outbreak – must find their own way out, despite major airlines suspending all flights to China and cities being put on lockdown.
Jo Jones, a Briton who has been teaching English in Beijing for three years, told MailOnline returning to Britain was impossible if she wanted to work in China again because her employers were threatening to tear up her visa and work permit if she downed tools and fled to the UK.
Briton Stuart Morris, who lives in the port city of Guangzhou, attacked the Government for failing to give him any guarantees that his Chinese wife and child would be allowed back into Britain.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab revealed there will be just one more UK-led evacuation flight. He said people in Wuhan would now be able to instead hitch rides out of the disaster zone on other countries’ planes. Just 100 of 300 British nationals living in Wuhan have been airlifted out so far.
Andy Roberts, a university lecturer, wrote to The Guardian to say he is currently housebound with his wife in Ningbo and he believes finding a flight would be difficult.
He has been married to his wife, a 39-year-old Chinese national, for 14 years. and she has previously lived in the UK for 10 years.
The 59-year-old said they are restricted to staying in their apartment and only one family member is allowed to visit the supermarket every two days.
‘The UK advice is not very practical as getting to an airport and finding a flight would be difficult right now,’ he said. ‘And if I did go back where would I go? My home is here in China.
‘We are keeping our spirits up; I’m cycling everyday on my indoor trainer, escaping to Zwift virtual worlds, while my wife is working out from YouTube Zumba clips. The cats aren’t fussed.
‘At the moment we can still walk round the compound as long as we have masks on and we stop and chat to neighbours, albeit from a distance.’
Liam Dutch, a 26-year-old teacher in Shenzhen, told the newspaper he was ‘conflicted’ about the British government’s advice to leave.
‘Many of us have spent a lot of time building new lives here, it is not simply a case of ‘booking a flight home to then return at an unknown date’,’ he said. ‘It would be like putting my life on pause.
‘Firstly, it’s highly expensive to travel 10,000 miles home, and then come back again. Secondly, we do have contractual obligations, rent to pay, friends and girlfriends and of course, our general everyday lives, which we have become accustomed to.’
Currently, the UK has no routine screening of people arriving from China because there is such a slim chance of them showing symptoms during the time they are in the airport, MailOnline understands.
There are, however, health checks for people being evacuated from the Hubei province at the heart of the outbreak, and doctors on standby at London Heathrow for anyone who becomes ill.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the Government is ‘taking no chances’ with British citizens at risk of coronavirus.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday morning, Mr Hancock said the advice was a ‘science-led approach’ based on the severity of the virus and its impact in China.
Asked how logistically Britons are expected to return to the UK, he told BBC Breakfast: ‘There are still commercial flights available.
‘The principle that we are taking is that we want to take no chances with this virus. We want to take a science-led approach.
‘The approach we have been taking is very much driven by the advice of the chief medical officer. This is a very serious virus and having a very serious impact in China.
‘There are two cases only here in the UK but we do expect more, so we are taking no chances.’
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, waded in on the ‘shambolic’ response from the Government. She said: ‘From the very start of this outbreak, the government’s response has been a total shambles, and now they appear to be telling British nationals in China simply to fend for themselves in terms of getting out of the country.
‘How on earth has the Foreign Office not got plans and protocols in place for how these crises are managed?
Mr Singh flew to China on January 20 with his Chinese wife Vicky and their two-year-old daughter Tara to celebrate the Lunar New Year as well as his birthday.
But their holiday was turned upside down after their return flights were cancelled repeatedly in the wake of the epidemic.
After seeking help from the FCO hotline in desperation, Mr Singh said he was advised to make his own arrangements because the authority said they could only help British expats in Wuhan and Hubei Province.
Mr Singh, who lives in Dulwich, said they were due to fly back to London from Shanghai via Switzerland on February 2, but their flight was cancelled.
Their airline, Lufthansa, put them on another flight operated by Air China, but that flight was also cancelled.
Mr Singh said: ‘They have asked all British nationals to leave, but their advice is meaningless if British nationals who are not registered to receive the updates are not aware.
‘And asking British nationals to leave China, okay what about British nationals who need help arrange a flight. Airlines are cancelling fights by the hour. Most flights from China to the UK are going to be cancelled.
‘So if they are asking British nationals to urgently leave China, well if someone is in Beijing or Shanghai and they can’t get a flight back to the UK, how do they expect the British nationals to leave China, how? Unless they arrange an evacuation flight that’s the best way possible.
‘So if you look at other countries. Japan has done the same thing. South Korea has done the same thing. India, their Foreign Minister said they are prepared to bring their nationals back even if they were on Mars, so it’s about evacuating all nationals from the whole country, not from Hubei Province.
‘I do believe that a patriotic effort by the UK government is needed to get behind every British national based in China, to say we support, we are saving you as you are falling.’
The family were eventually transferred to a third flight, also by Air China, which arrived in London on Tuesday night.
Mr Singh said after landing: ‘While the Air China cabin crew did temperature checks and asked all passengers to fill in health forms, the most shocking thing was that nobody at UK Border Force at Heathrow arrivals checked anyone’s temperature, there were no leaflets, no information to warn passengers, nothing.
‘The customs officers asked me where we flew from, we said ‘Shanghai and Chengdu’. His response: ‘Oh I read in the news there is a virus in China. Glad you are in safe waters now.’
‘This was given on the plane but we got nothing when we arrived at Heathrow. No one bothered checking our health forms and no one asked. Seemed they didn’t know about this virus in the UK and don’t take it seriously.’
Ms Jones, who has taught English in Beijing for three years, said her Chinese employers were blackmailing her in a bid to stop her returning to the UK.
She told MailOnline: ‘I am Brit in Beijing and I’ve been here for 3 years. I was seriously considering leaving China for the time being but the company I work for said that if we left we’d come back jobless.
‘They’d cancel out work visa and the permit which gives us the right to work and live here. I work for an English teaching school which puts money over anything else…even the health of their employees.’
One man who is stuck in Wuhan said he has been unable to get on any flights out of the country because he had sent off his passport for a visa renewal.
Jamie Morris, who has lived in the city for a year, even thinks he has already been ill with coronavirus after he recovered from pneumonia towards the end of last year.
The 23-year-old, from New Tredegar in Wales, said: ‘The news of a British evacuation came very quickly, leaving many people who lived a fair distance from the airport unable to make the flight.’
Mr Morris claimed that whenever he has contacted the Foreign Office ‘they just tell me to be patient and they will be in touch if anything changes’.
He added: ‘I am currently on my own in my apartment, isolated from the outside world, as you would say.
‘At this point, I am willing to go to any other country, but it’s all down to the UK embassy.’
Mr Morris added that his girlfriend Camilla, 24, had left him behind on Tuesday on a flight to New Zealand, which she could board because she was a Samoan national.
He said: ‘It was the hardest decision we’ve made but she was given the opportunity to leave so I encouraged her to take it and make sure she was safe.
‘Being stuck in a quarantine in New Zealand is a lot better than being stuck in Wuhan.
Despite the US, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan barring foreign travellers from China, the UK is still permitting arrivals from the virus-stricken country.
But after furious backlash and being accused of not going far enough, the British Government is reportedly considering a blanket ban on all flights from China.
It would include barring all foreign citizens from entering the country if they have been to China in the last two weeks, reports suggest.
A direct flight with Air China from Beijing to London Heathrow is just a click away. The government says a team of public health experts are at the London airport to ‘support anyone travelling from China who feels unwell.’
It further advises that anyone who has travelled from the virus-stricken country in the last two weeks should remain indoors and call NHS 111 if they develop symptoms.
The only two UK airlines serving China – British Airways and Virgin Atlantic – have grounded their flights due to the outbreak. Several others are continuing to operate flights, including Air China, China Southern Airlines, and Shenzhen Airlines.
The Foreign Office amended its travel advice after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he expects more cases to be diagnosed in the UK and warned worldwide cases of the disease are doubling every five days.
The announcement also sparked accusations the government will be ‘spreading disease’ across the UK as it will be unable to monitor thousands of returning Britons if they are arriving on commercial flights. There are also currently no plans to quarantine those returning on normal flights.
But many of those trying to return from China have told of extreme difficulties in travelling out of the country.
The upgraded warning comes after people still stuck in the Hubei province, which is at the centre of the outbreak and has had the vast majority of cases and deaths, were told to get in touch with the Foreign Office (FCO) if they want to come home.
Although the FCO earlier said it was not planning any more of its own flights to repatriate people, citizens may be allowed on other countries’ missions.
The lack of serious preparation has provoked anger among people in China, those at home and even in Parliament.
The Foreign Office’s new advice is not believed to have been triggered by the outbreak getting worse, but by the risk of people running out of options if they do leave.
The British Embassy and consulates in China are moving non-essential staff out of the country, the BBC reported. Its China correspondent, Robin Brant, said this would mean ‘there are fewer people who can help any Britons in distress’.
Flight sharing between evacuating countries, which appears to be the only remaining option for Brits in the Hubei province, has been going on since the evacuations began.
Eleven British citizens were brought back to Oxfordshire on a plane operated by the French government on Sunday, and almost 30 foreign nationals returned on the UK’s flight last week, which was chartered from a Spanish company.
There will be a third flight carrying 14 British passengers leaving Wuhan tomorrow, which will take evacuees to New Zealand.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons that UK nationals and their dependents will be able to get on board the Boeing 777-200, which is being operated by New Zealand’s government.
Media in New Zealand reports the plane will leave Wuhan before midnight tonight (4pm GMT) and will land back in Auckland tomorrow.
Air New Zealand confirmed the flight would be made up of New Zealand nationals, as well as residents from Australia and other Pacific Islands.
Evacuees – including British ones – will spend at least 14 days at a military base at Whangaparaoa, just north of Auckland.
Foreign Office officials have yet to reveal when the Brits will be flown back to the UK. Australian citizens will be quarantined on Christmas Island.
The Boeing jet reportedly has space for around 300 passengers, of which around 70 are thought to be from New Zealand.
Flying out of China on a commercial flight is impossible for those in Wuhan and increasingly difficult from other cities, as airlines around the world are reducing or stopping their services to the mainland.
The Hubei province has already been locked down and seen airports and public transport closed, but wider areas of the country are affected, too.
British Airways has already stopped its flights between London and Beijing and Shanghai.
And all airlines in the US will have stopped flying to and from the mainland by tomorrow, Wednesday.
Other airlines which have suspended all services to and from mainland China include Air France, Air Seoul, American Airlines, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Delta Airlines, Egyptair, El Israeli Airlines, Finnair (from Feb 6), Iberia Airlines, Kenya Airways, Lion Air, Lufthansa, Oman Air, Qantas Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, all Russian airlines except Aeroflot, Rwandair, SAS (Norway), Saudia, Scoot (Singapore), Turkish Airlines, Turkmenistan Airlines, United Airlines, Vietjet, Vietnam Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
Those which have reduced their services are Air Canada, Air India, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, LOT Polish Airlines and Philippines Airlines.
Chinese airlines, however, are still operating flights back to London Heathrow from some of the major cities, as well as Virgin Atlantic flights from Beijing.
Air China is also flying out of the capital, as well as from Shanghai.
China Eastern is flying out of Shanghai; China Southern is flying from Guangzhou; and Tianjin Airlines and Hainan Airlines are flying out of Chongqing.
Countries across Europe have been pulling their citizens out of China over the past week.
The UK, France, Turkey, Portugal, Czech Republic and Belgium have all repatriated dozens of their own citizens.
Russia today sent its first plane to do the same and begin a mission to retrieve around 130 Russian citizens from the Hubei province at the centre of the outbreak.
It was shown landing tonight in Wuhan and all evacuees were undergoing medical checks by military doctors and virology experts.
Vladimir Putin has ordered five Il-76 air force planes have been earmarked for flights to repatriate citizens of Russia and other ex-Soviet countries.
Those who are brought back from the area at the centre of the coronavirus crisis will spend two weeks in quarantine in Siberia until they are confirmed to be healthy.