Four chartered flights have been arranged to repatriate Hong Kong citizens from around Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the spreading coronavirus epidemic, says the Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
She said 533 residents had been stranded and left in a quandary for months in the afflicted area, while local authorities have wrestled to contain the outbreak, which has left thousands infected and hundreds dead.
Of those set to return, there are 14 pregnant women, 11 secondary school students due to take upcoming exams, and those in need of urgent medical treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer.
Similarly, the government, which has faced growing demands to evacuate its residents from mainland China after one died of the coronavirus, said that it would begin bringing people back from Hubei Province, the centre of the outbreak.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents have been unable to return after much of Hubei was put on lockdown last month.
Their worries were heightened when officials said on Sunday that a 77-year-old Hong Kong man who was infected with the coronavirus had died in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
Hong Kong lawmakers had demanded to know why some Hong Kong residents in Japan were whisked home on chartered flights last week, while others remained stuck in mainland China.
“We know that it was not only a decision for the Hong Kong government,” said Ivan Choy, a political science lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It was also the decision of the Japanese and mainland governments.”
More than a dozen countries have evacuated citizens from Wuhan.
But Beijing complained that the United States’ moves to get its citizens and diplomats out of the city had created a panic.
It showed little interest in letting people from Hong Kong join the exodus.
Hong Kong is part of China but operates under a model of “one country, two systems,” with its own local government, courts and border controls.
In spite of the city’s autonomy, its inability to evacuate residents earlier was a sharp reminder of Beijing’s ultimate authority.
The Hong Kong government said that it had received more than 1,400 requests for help from Hubei, involving 2,700 people in more than three dozen cities across the province.
The Hong Kong government said that it considered arranging the return of residents from Hubei a matter of “great importance.”
But it admitted that there were logistical challenges, with some people located in remote cities.
“It may take up to eight to 10 hours’ drive from these cities to Wuhan,” the government said in an emailed statement. “This situation is unique as citizens of other countries have mostly stayed in Wuhan or nearby areas.”