Nearly 600 European citizens in China want to be repatriated because of the coronavirus epidemic, the EU said on Wednesday (29 January), as airlines began suspending flights to and from the Asian giant.
“There are a number of EU citizens in China who would like to leave the country, the current number is about 600, and they cannot do so at the moment,” Janez Lenarčič, the EU commissioner for crisis management told reporters.
Those affected come from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Britain, he said.
On Tuesday France activated the European civil protection mechanism in order to coordinate the repatriation of European nationals from the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
Under the mechanism, the European Commission will contribute to the cost of the two flights planned for repatriations.
The EU has set up a response coordination centre to monitor cases of of the new coronavirus and oversee repatriations.
Johannes Luchner, the EU’s emergency operations director, said returning people was a complex operation.
“You don’t send a plane to Wuhan load up the people and go home — you have to screen the people,” he said.
“You don’t want a plane with 200 people and one of them is infected and infects everybody else on the flight back.”
The commission has also told staff to “suspend or postpone all non-urgent travel to China”.
Croatia, which holds the rotating EU presidency, is considering organising an extraordinary meeting of European health ministers in the coming days.