Thais residing in Chongqing, China, return to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Jan. 31, 2020.

BANGKOK — The government’s claim that Thailand can evacuate its citizens from China’s Wuhan city by Saturday morning was disputed by another senior official who said China has yet to grant them permission to land.

Hours after Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters the operation was due to begin at about 6am tomorrow, health minister Anutin Charnvirakul threw the plan into doubt by saying that the Chinese authorities have not yet confirmed the evacuation.

Anutin said he doesn’t know when the Thais stranded in Wuhan can be brought back. The government is facing a rising anger from the public who demanded to know why other countries including Japan and the United States already succeeded in bringing back their citizens.

“Please don’t ask me what day, because we have to respect the destination country,” Anutin said. “But China told us to be on stand-by. Once they let us know the time and date, we can go right away. I believe it won’t be long from now.”

The u-turn came just hours after Deputy PM Prawit announced the evacuation effort at a news conference attended by reporters from multiple news agencies.

“They already said 6am of [Feb.] 1. Why didn’t you listen?” Gen. Prawit said.

Anutin, who on Thursday lashed out at those who spread “fake news” related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, said today the Thai authorities stand ready to fly as soon as a permission is given.

“I heard with my own ears that the Prime Minister is communicating with a senior Chinese official,” the health minister said. “We are ready. Once they give us the greenlight, we’ll take off.”

AirAsia has offered its service for the evacuation effort. The airline said it will cover the cost of the flight to Wuhan. A letter signed by AirAsia CEO Tony Fernades released on Friday stated that the airline is “honored to provide this assistance with all cost borne by us.”

As of Friday, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been authorized to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated.

The government previously came under intense criticism for its perceived delay in evacuating Thai nationals from the Chinese city, especially after it emerged that 20 Thai navy officers were already flown back from China.

Even the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn weighed in the controversy, writing on her Instagram, “I don’t know what the government is waiting for. They’re starving over there!”

A group of Thai citizens residing in Chongqing also returned to Bangkok aboard a ThaiSmile flight on Friday evening. Officials said the 14 were flown back on tickets arranged by the Thai consulates and embassies in China.