British Airways has stopped flights to Beijing and Shanghai for the next two days in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
The airline’s decision follows the Foreign Office yesterday urging British citizens not to travel to mainland China unless it was essential to.
Direct flights between London and Beijing or Shanghai are now suspended until Friday, 31 January.
Earlier today, no bookings were possible on BA’s website until March at the earliest.
“We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel,” a British Airways spokesperson said.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.”
“The situation regarding the coronavirus in China is constantly developing,” an internal British Airways memo, seen by Paxex, read. “Tonight the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office position has changed, advising against all but essential travel to China.”
“As you would expect, this situation has been monitored constantly for the last week and updates have been provided for our colleagues.”
Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic has told passengers with flights booked to, through or from China they cannot complete their journeys.
Travellers must instead rebook their flights, change their destination or request a refund. Affected Virgin Atlantic flights are those due to fly between 22 January and 29 February. The affected Chinese destinations include Hong Kong, Virgin Atlantic said.
British Airways advice for customers
A BA spokesperson told passengers to check its website for details on their flights.
That especially applies if BA customers are already in China and seeking to return home, said consumer magazine Which.
“British Airways’ decision to cancel flights to and from China is understandable following the Foreign Office travel warning,” travel editor Rory Boland said.
“But a lack of clear information about what this means for BA passengers currently in China… is going to cause distress.
“These passengers will be worried that they are now stranded. BA and the Foreign Office must urgently clarify what options it can provide to customers. Particularly those already in China – so they can amend their plans accordingly and get home.”
Coronavirus death toll mounts
So far the coronavirus has killed 132 people in China after 26 more died in the last 24 hours.
And the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus has leaped to 5,974, 1,459 more than yesterday’s total.
The soaring numbers mean the so-called Wuhan Virus has now infected more people than Sars. That strain of the coronavirus infected 5,327 people and killed 349 people between November 2002 and July 2003.
The new strain of coronavirus has spread to Japan, Hong Kong, the US, Canada, France and Germany. So far there are no confirmed cases in the UK.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the Foreign Office is working to repatriate UK citizens from the Hubei province, where the outbreak began.
“Due to the increasing travel restrictions and the public health situation, we now advise against all but essential travel to China,” he added.
Around 200 British citizens stranded in Wuhan and the surrounding area are set to be evacuated in the coming days.
British Airways ban ‘creates impetus’ to rescue UK citizens
Baroness Nicky Morgan said BA’s decision would create “more impetus” to get these citizens back to the UK.
“The Foreign Office will be working with staff on the ground to identify UK nationals,” Morgan told BBC Breakfast. “We will get people home as soon as we can, as soon as we can make arrangements.
“Obviously, today’s decision by British Airways provides more impetus to the government to make other plans and communicate those.”
The deadline for UK citizens in Wuhan to notify the British consulate they want to leave passed overnight.
Returning UK citizens should ‘self-isolate’
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said Brits returning from Wuhan should “self-isolate” for a period of two weeks. That is the length of the coronavirus’ incubation period.
Even those showing no symptoms should confine themselves, Hancock said.
Governments are now advising their citizens to avoid travelling to China. China’s National Health Commission has confirmed the virus can spread via human contact. But it is not known how dangerous the virus is or how easily it can spread between humans.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has not labelled it a global emergency. However, the agency has marked the crisis a national emergency for China.
China has placed the Hubei province under lockdown with a travel ban. That includes the 11m citizens in Wuhan, where the coronavirus is believed to have started.
British health officials have tested 97 citizens but all have proven negative so far.
However, the director of Public Health England has the coronavirus could still be present in the UK.
Which countries have reported coronavirus cases?
Germany has counted four cases so far while the United Arab Emirates has confirmed its first cases of coronavirus.
Asutralia has five cases, Cambodia has counted one, Canada has counted two and is investigating 19 suspected cases.
Eight people in Hong Kong are affected. And leader Carrie Lam has declared the outbreak an emergency, cancelling Lunar New Year celebrations.
France has three known cases and was the first European country to report coronavirus infections.
Hong Kong stocks fall
Hong Kong’s stock exchange fell three per cent when it reopened after an extended Lunar New Year break today.
Traders sold out of almost every listed stock as fear over the spread of the coronavirus grows. Beijing has sought to mitigate the impact on stocks by postponing some exchanges’ reopening dates.
The Shanghai Stock Exchange will now not reopen after the Chinese New Year break until 2 February.
However, that has not stopped businesses shutting up shop in China, particularly in Wuhan. That has led to fears on the virus’ impact to China’s economy.