The Australian government on Jan. 30 defended its plans to quarantine its citizens for 14 days in a detention center on Christmas Island as they return from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.
Australia announced on Wednesday it would evacuate help some citizens leave Hubei province as part of a joint operation with New Zealand, promising to prioritize the “isolated and vulnerable,” including the elderly, children, and short-term travelers who have no support base in the region.
“We have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and Hubei province,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time.
However, the decision to relocate some of those affected to Christmas Island—a remote speck in the Indian Ocean best known for housing asylum seekers—has been criticized by a number of health officials.
The Australian Medical Association called on the government to find a “humane” solution.
Speaking to reporters in Canberra on Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Australia has no other choice, and the decision was made to keep the broader population safe.
“The reality is people need to be accommodated for somewhere for up to 14 days. I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane,” he said. “I don’t have a facility otherwise that we can quickly accommodate for what might be many hundreds of people and Christmas Island is purpose-built for exactly this scenario.”
“I want to make sure that we keep Australians safe.”
About 600 people have told the government they are in Wuhan, however Morrison said it was not clear how many wanted to leave China. He did not specify how many Australians the government would be able to assist, but said individuals would be evacuated on a last-in, first-out basis.
Australia has seven confirmed cases of coronavirus. Experts, meanwhile, have said that the Chinese regime is likely underreporting the true scale of the coronavirus.
Australian medical teams were set to be deployed on Thursday to Christmas Island to process the returning residents. Medical personnel were being sent to the island by the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Center.
It came after Morrison on Wednesday said that the Australian Medical Assistance Teams will be sent to Christmas Island to provide medical support.
“I also want to stress that for Christmas Island, we will be ensuring there will be support provided directly to the Christmas Island community completely separate and quarantined from the support that is being provided in the quarantine zone,” he said.
“The quarantine declaration will be made by the government to give effect to those arrangements.
“The defense forces have been tasked to identify overflow facilities where that may be necessary and also to provide whatever logistical and other support is necessary to support the operations on Christmas Island,” Morrison said.
Those evacuated will reportedly have to contribute to the cost of the trip, and sign a waiver allowing them to be quarantined on the island, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Australia’s defense of its policy came as several countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from Wuhan. Nearly 200 Americans, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, airlifted from Wuhan on Wednesday, will remain isolated at a U.S. military base in California for at least 72 hours of medical observation, public health officials said.
A second flight with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed in Japan on Thursday, with nine people showing symptoms of fever or coughing, broadcaster NHK reported. The first flight landed on Wednesday and at least one more is expected in coming days.
New Zealand on Thursday said it would charter an aircraft to assist citizens wanting to leave Wuhan.
Reuters contributed to this report.