BANGKOK — The government on Friday said it is dispatching a plane to China’s Wuhan tomorrow morning and retrieve Thai citizens from the city, which has been sealed off from the outside world due to a coronavirus outbreak there.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said a commercial airliner owned by AirAsia will arrive in Wuhan at about 6am. A source inside the Cabinet’s taskforce on containing the coronavirus confirmed Prawit’s remark, saying the evacuation will begin immediately once the plane lands.
The Thai government initially planned for an evacuation using a military airplane, but health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the plan was changed due to security concerns.
“The Chinese authorities asked us to send in a commercial aircraft instead of military because they said it will take time to inspect military aircrafts due to national security reasons,” Anutin said on Thursday night. “Once they give us the green light, we will fly there immediately.”
He said the evacuees will undergo strict quarantine measures and they will not be charged for the flight.
“There’s about 160 Thais [in that area], but only 140 of them have signed up to return home,” Anutin said. “I will board that plane myself and will bring some humanitarian aid to Chinese people as well.”
The cost of the flight to Wuhan is paid by the airline. A letter signed by AirAsia CEO Tony Fernades 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!”
Thai officials said they needed time to seek flight permission from Chinese aviation authorities.
Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra
Update: This story has been updated with information that AirAsia will pay for the cost of evacuation flights.