TORONTO -- Hundreds of Canadians in Hubei, China are awaiting evacuation by the federal government, but Chinese authorities will not allow anyone showing symptoms to leave as part of its stringent efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak. China has agreed to allow families with Canadian children to leave together, however, regardless of the citizenship status of the parent.

Returning Canadians will arrive at the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., where they will stay for 14 days for medical observation as a precautionary measure. This comes as Ontario health authorities say the number of coronavirus cases being investigated in Canada appears to be dropping.

Some 300 Canadians in Hubei have requested assistance from the federal government to leave, 280 of whom have Canadian passports, said Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne in a press briefing Monday. It was a number that continued to fluctuate by the hour, and more than 500 Canadians are registered in the region, he said.

“We have asked Chinese authorities to allow the primary caregivers, whether they are Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or a Chinese national to be able to fly with that child in Canada. We received assurance that China will follow suit on that,” said Champagne.

Champagne said the government has been working around the clock to prepare for their repatriation and was awaiting final approvals from China. A chartered plane will be on standby in Hanoi, Vietnam, while the government waits for China to authorize entry to Wuhan, where the airspace is currently closed. A second plane has also been authorized in case the first one cannot accommodate everyone wishing to leave. The government was also working with other countries flying its citizens out of China in case they have room to accommodate a handful of additional Canadians if necessary.

Based on information received so far, no Canadians are showing symptoms of infection, officials said. A Standing Rapid Deployment Team sent to Wuhan is on-site to help those who remain behind, including anyone sick and Canadian permanent residents unable to leave.

“Our understanding from the Chinese authorities is that no one who is presenting symptoms will be able to fly. This is actually part of China’s extensive effort to contain the spread of the disease. They’ve been resolute on this with all countries,” said Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Returning Canadians must undergo a thorough health screening process that includes being checked prior to leaving for the airport and entering the airport by Chinese authorities, and by Canadian officials prior to boarding the airplane and throughout the flight, where two doctors and four nurses will be among the personnel accompanying passengers. Anyone who shows symptoms during the flight will be segregated and masked for the duration of the flight. There will be a refueling stopover in Vancouver, at which time any passengers with symptoms will get immediate medical assistance and be isolated. Travellers are screened again upon arrival at Trenton.

“The crew will be wearing protective equipment, because if we are able to secure a second lading and get another plane, which the every intent, then we will be able to go back and repatriate even more people,” Hadju told CTV’s Power Play. “We’re working out the details around a second plane, but yes, the crew will be protected.”

The government said any criticism of a slow response was unfounded and also refuted speculation over whether political tensions with China this past year hampered repatriation efforts. Champagne said the speed of the process once a plane was secured has been in line with other countries who have repatriated its citizens. He noted that only a week ago, only two Canadians had requested assistance.

However, Hadju said there remains no timeline for when the plane can land.

“We’re working as quickly as possible and hopefully we’ll have more answers as the week unfolds, but my counterpart Minister Champagne is working really closely with the Chinese authorities,” she said. “We have to actually determine when we can land, and that is, obviously, completely up to the Chinese government. They are very willing to have us land our plane there, it’s just a matter of logistics.”

Hadju added any perceived delay not a matter of politics, but rather that the Chinese airspace is busy as supplies are being brought into the area.

It has been 11 days since Wuhan and other cities in the province of Hubei, the region hardest hit by a coronavirus outbreak that has claimed at least 362 lives and infected more than 17,200 people globally, was locked down by Chinese authorities. Health authorities say that most people infected with the virus have shown symptoms between 2 and 10 days after exposure. Any quarantine measures imposed have typically been for 14 days.

“That’s important, as we look at the overall picture when the travel limits were put on by the Chinese government,” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health in a press conference, adding that health officials would continue to monitor the situation closely.

The federal government raised its risk level assessment for travel to China last week, recommending that Canadians avoid all non-essential travel to the country, and to specifically avoid all travel to Hubei province. But unlike some other countries, it stopped short of imposing a strict travel ban that denied entry for Chinese travellers and all other foreign nationals who have recently travelled to China.

In Canada, authorities reiterated that the risks to Canadians remained extremely low and reminded Canadians to take normal cold- and flu- season precautions, including frequent hand-washing and coughing into a sleeve.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told reporters 126 tests have been conducted at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, with119 testing negative as of Sunday. Only four cases have been found in Canada; three in Ontario and one in British Columbia. Only one person had to be admitted to the hospital and has already been discharged. The remaining three cases were in self-isolation at home and doing well, officials said.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, said in a separate press conference earlier that everyone on the airplane that was near the first patient has been notified, monitored, and if necessary, tested.


Last week, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency. Over the weekend, the Philippines reported the first death from the virus outside of China, and took measures to ban all non-citizens from China. Similar restrictions were imposed by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia. 

China criticized these moves even as Chinese authorities continued to impose strict lockdown measures in a number of its own cities, restricting travel in and out for more than 50 million people. Wenzhou, Zhejiang, a port city of nearly 10 million people some 460 km south of Shanghai and 850 km southeast of Wuhan, imposed a rule that allowed only one family member to venture out every other day to buy essential supplies. Just east of Wuhan, the city of Huanggang, which has a population of about 7.5 million and the second worst-hit city after Wuhan, also imposed similar restrictions. Chinese media reported over the weekend that 337 party officials were punished for mishandling the outbreak in that city.

Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University told CTV’s Your Morning that such extreme mass quarantine measures would never occur in Canada for a number of reasons.

"In the Canadian context, something like this would just be inconceivable," he said. "It would be a total violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So all Canadians have a right to liberty - to restrict that right, (it) needs to be demonstrably justifiable in a democratic and free society."

He said targeted quarantines and isolation of those who are greatest at risk of spreading it make sense and have been proven to work. But mass quarantine can heighten fear and worry for those within it, cutting them off from the world and from essentials such as food supplies, he said, which results in people trying to circumvent the lockdown measures and makes the job more difficult for officials.

"Typically these kind of things don’t work and can cause some harm."

With files from Writer Ben Cousins


Dr. Barbara Yaffe is Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health. A previous version of this article misidentified her position.