Great Britain

Coronavirus: What are the options to leave China?

Amid a growing coronavirus outbreak, the Foreign Office is now warning: “If you’re in China and able to leave, you should do so.

“The elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be at heightened risk.”

British citizens have plenty of options for leaving the People’s Republic.

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These are the key questions and answers.

Why has the Foreign Office said this now?

The main concern appears to be the dwindling number of options for travellers to leave China – and the risk that more cities and provinces could be closed down if the Wuhan Coronavirus spreads.

The FCO warns: “It may become harder to access departure options over the coming weeks.”

The advice does not apply to Hong Kong or Macau.

Is anyone still flying between China and the UK?

Yes. The three main airlines from the People’s Republic are still operating daily to and from the UK.

Air China has an Airbus A330 link from Beijing to Heathrow, and a larger A350 from Shanghai to Gatwick.

China Eastern maintains its Boeing 777 flights between Shanghai and Heathrow. And China Southern operates Boeing 787s from Guangzhou to Heathrow.

Won’t the new Foreign Office warning put extra pressure on these flights, with not enough seats to go around?

While the FCO advice may cause a temporary surge in demand – particularly among businesses employing UK expatriates in China – there should be enough capacity.

“Normal” traffic, comprising business travellers and tourists, has almost dried up, so seats are readily available.

Are airlines putting up prices to cash in on the exodus?

There is no sign of profiteering; to the contrary, carriers seem grateful to get passengers at almost any price. For departures tomorrow from Shanghai to Gatwick, Air China wants only £380 one way. That price has increased by £40 since The Independent started monitoring it several hours ago. 

If that is too expensive, then connecting flights are readily available. For example, Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur and Aeroflot via Moscow are offering good deals.

Is escaping via Hong Kong a good idea?

For travellers in southern China it would be worth considering – except that the Hong Kong authorities have just closed all border crossings with mainland China with the exception of the Shenzhen Bay checkpoint and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. That means pressure on these crossings will be intense, and long delays are possible.

What about flights to destinations other than London?

Although the Gulf carriers have cut back their routes, some flights are still operating. Emirates will get you from Beijing to Manchester for around £400 tomorrow.

From Qingdao to Edinburgh it is a more complicated journey, with no cheap one-stop options. Routes via South Korea are likely to be the best choice for a budget escape.

What happens to people who ignore the Foreign Office warning?

The advice has no legal effect. However, to stay in a country against an FCO warning is likely to invalidate travel insurance.

Is the China crisis having affecting fares on other routes?

In theory it should be, because vast amounts of capacity have been taken out of the market. Travellers’ unwillingness to travel via Asian hubs may increase demand for links between the UK and Australasia via North America.

But there is not much evidence of significant effects so far. For an itinerary departing from London Heathrow to Sydney tomorrow, United Airlines has its standard £655 return special via the US. 

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