Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that her government will charter four flights to bring back 533 Hongkongers in the Chinese province of Hubei, where the new coronavirus was first detected, over the coming two days.

Among those stranded, 440 lived in Wuhan city – the epicentre of the outbreak – while 93 others were scattered across 10 cities in the province. Some have urgent needs, including 14 pregnant women, 11 secondary students who need to sit their university entrance exams on March 27, as well as 22 people who need medical treatment for serious illnesses.

Carrie Lam at a press conference on March 3. Photo: inmediahk.et.

A government delegation of more than 40 staff, led by the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip and Director of Immigration Erick Tsang, will fly to Wuhan to facilitate the operation.

The delegation will include at least 17 medical staff, and each chartered flight will have a minimum of two doctors and two nurses on board. Obstetrics and gynaecologists will be present to handle the pregnant women.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said the Department of Health had evaluated the health statuses of those stranded. Multiple temperature checks will be conducted and those who display symptoms of the SARS-like disease after landing will be sent to the hospital for isolation, she added.

Chan also said passengers on the chartered flights will be asked to wear a face mask and protective suit during the flight and follow special seating arrangements, she added.

Upon their arrival in Hong Kong, the group will be sent directly to Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan for a 14-day mandatory quarantine, where they will be tested for the Covid-19 disease, which has infected 100 people in the city as of Tuesday.

Hong Kong government charters flights to take back residents on the Diamond Princess Cruise in Japan last month. Photo: GovHK.

The operation came more than a month after numerous countries, including Japan, Singapore and the United States, pulled their citizens out of Wuhan.

Lam denied that the evacuation had been delayed, saying the spread of the coronavirus in Hubei had restricted transport out of the province.

“We do not feel that we have delayed the return of Hong Kong people stranded in Hubei. Even up to this point, Hubei province, particularly the city of Wuhan, is still under a very challenging situation in terms of the infection and cases confirmed,” Lam said.

“There are still very clear restrictions on exit arrangements as well as transport arrangements leaving Hubei province,” she added.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks before her weekly Executive Council meeting on March 3, 2020. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Nip also defended the government’s handling of the evacuation. He said they were waiting for a “right moment” to kickstart the plan and had to assess the public health risk of transferring the stranded residents to Hong Kong. He said authorities also had to consider the availability of quarantine facilities and the operation’s impact on the city’s hospital care system.

“There are more than 3,800 Hong Kong people seeking assistance in Hubei in more than 30 cities. On the first day of receiving these requests, we had started all the planning and contingencies for transferring these people to Hong Kong,” Nip said.

“Once we are at the right moment to do so, we started to implement the operation,” he added.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.