WUHAN: Foreign airlines began suspending flights to and from China on Wednesday as global fears mounted over a coronavirus epidemic that has killed 132 people and infected around 6,000.
The flight announcements came hours after some countries began airlifts of their nationals trapped in Wuhan, the quarantined central Chinese city of 11 million people at the epicentre of the health emergency.
A growing number of governments — including the United States, Britain and Germany — have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China over concerns about the viral outbreak.
China has urged its own citizens to delay trips abroad, with at least 15 countries having confirmed cases of the disease.
The United Arab Emirates reported the first known case in the Middle East on Wednesday.
Four members of a Chinese family who arrived in the United Arab Emirates from the city of Wuhan have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, the UAE health ministry said.
The four were visitors and arrived in the country on January 16, health ministry official Hussein al Rand told reporters. One family member, feeling unwell, attended a clinic on January 23 where they were diagnosed with the coronavirus.
The other three members were subsequently tested and also diagnosed with the virus. The family comprises a wife and husband, both 36, a child aged nine, and a grandmother aged 63, Rand said.
All four are in a stable condition and under medical observation, the ministry said in an earlier statement carried by the state news agency.
Rand said the government had traced those the family had come into contact with since arriving, and all had tested negative for the virus.
Emirates airline said on Wednesday its flights were operating normally, and Rand said there were no plans to suspend flights between the UAE and China.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) health committee met on Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh to discuss the virus and to unify Gulf efforts to prevent its spread.
British Airways was the first major airline to announce a total suspension of flights to and from China, citing the travel advice of the foreign office.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority,” the airline said in a statement.
Indonesia’s Lion Air Group, Southeast Asia’s biggest carrier by fleet size, then said it would halt services to and from China from Saturday “until further notice”.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, an important China trade partner, announced it would halt cross-border passenger train traffic, suspend regular flights between the neighbours, and stop issuing visas to Chinese citizens over the coming days.
Airlines from Myanmar and Nepal also announced suspensions of all China routes.
Cathay Pacific has reduced flights, citing low demand and the Hong Kong government’s response plan against the virus.
In one of the most dramatic measures, the tiny Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea announced no travellers from Asia would be allowed in.
Mongolia closed its border to cars from China earlier this week.
China has taken extraordinary measures to try and stop the disease spreading, including bans on tour groups travelling overseas, suspending schools and extending the Lunar New Year holiday.
Authorities last week banned most street traffic in and around Wuhan in an unprecedented quarantine effort, leaving more than 50 million people shuttered in their homes.
“This is the first day since the lockdown that I’ve had to go out,” a man in his 50s said on the mostly deserted streets of the industrial city on Wednesday.
“I have no choice because I need to buy food.” Thousands of foreigners have been among those trapped in Wuhan. — AFP