SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s conservative government on Thursday defended its decision to use a detention center thousands of kilometers from the mainland to quarantine locals evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.
Australia on Wednesday said it would evacuate “isolated and vulnerable” locals from Wuhan as part of a joint operation with New Zealand.
Some health officials have criticized the decision to move those people to Christmas Island - about 2,600km (1,616 miles) from Australia and that had been used to hold thousands of refugees between 2002 and 2018.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said Australia has no other choice.
“The reality is people need to be accommodated for somewhere for up to 14 days. I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane,” Dutton told reporters in Canberra. “I don’t have a facility otherwise that we can quickly accommodate for what might be many hundreds of people and Christmas Island is purpose-built for exactly this scenario.”
The detention center on Christmas Island was reopened last year after a decade of being idled. It houses a Tamil family whom Australia wants to deport to Sri Lanka.
Australia, which has seven cases of coronavirus, said about 600 people have told the government they are in Wuhan, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not clear how many wanted to leave China.
Morrison said priority would be given to infants and elderly people.
On Thursday, the global death toll from the epidemic hit 170 people, while the number of infected patients rose to 7,711.
Australia’s defense of its policy came as several countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from Wuhan.
Nearly 200 Americans, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, airlifted from Wuhan on Wednesday, will remain isolated at a U.S. military base in California for at least 72 hours of medical observation, public health officials said.
A second flight with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed in Japan on Thursday, with nine people showing symptoms of fever or coughing, broadcaster NHK reported. The first flight landed on Wednesday and at least one more is expected in coming days.
New Zealand on Thursday said it would charter an aircraft to assist citizens wanting to leave Wuhan.
Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Gerry Doyle