The British government’s surprise announcement telling Britons to leave China “if they can” comes amid mounting international concern about the spread of the coronavirus.
But the advice came with no detailed guidance about why the UK’s position has changed – making it unclear whether this was a political stance, or one based on new medical guidance that British authorities have not shared publicly.
Other governments have cautioned against travel to China, or barred travellers who have made a recent visit. But the UK is the first country to advise its citizens leave China, suggesting even greater concerns about the virus.
It is almost certain to anger Chinese authorities, who have already strongly criticised American and Australian bans on travellers from China entering the respective countries. It also puts tens of thousands of Britons living in China in an extremely difficult position.
For many, a decision to leave could have significant personal, financial and professional ramifications, as it seems increasingly likely that the outbreak may last weeks or even months, so any absence would be long-term.
Those who have set up or run businesses may worry about how they will operate without key staff. Students may be penalised for leaving a course if they need credits towards a degree, employees with contracts may be penalised for breaking them.
Families with children in school may not be able to find them a place to study in the UK – or elsewhere – at short notice.
Those whose relatives don’t hold UK passports are likely to be particularly anxious, after watching the confusion over who would be allowed to leave Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, on evacuation flights.
The British government has not said if it will offer any financial support with leaving, any guidance on whether insurers might cover some costs, or advice on whether dependents could get fast-track help with paperwork to come to the UK.
Nor is it clear what support – if any – the government will be willing or able to offer those who decide to stay on despite the latest advice. It has already reduced diplomatic staff and warned that its support for citizens in China could be affected.
Today’s decision effectively leaves tens of thousands of people forced to weigh up a decision with huge consequences – without any real understanding of why they are being urged to leave now.
Those who were in the quarantined epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, have already been evacuated. Those who are left are likely to be asking if the UK authorities know or suspect the coronavirus is spreading widely elsewhere.