A little over a month ago, the Foreign Office was airlifting Brits out of quarantined Wuhan. But now with Europe and America grappling with the virus on home turf, the tables have turned. Planes leaving Heathrow and ultimately bound to China are packed full of anxious Chinese. Disappointed with the West’s coronavirus strategy, they believe they have better chances of survival inside China, the epicentre of the infection.
Tickets back to China are now going for twice or three times the normal rate, at the very least. A single economy seat will put you £1,500 out of pocket and that’s when you can find tickets at all. With global travel restrictions, 23 airlines have suspended their flights to China, including British Airways.
The problem has become so acute that entrepreneurial Chinese have been chartering private jets to fly back. For those who can’t afford one all to themselves, fixers will get you a seat, Beijing-bound, for £14,000 a pop. The Beijing authorities have been overwhelmed: at the weekend, private jets were banned from landing for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Shanghai airport is well equipped to whizz away any infected from an arriving flight. There are reports that Beijing anticipates 110,000 returnees from Europe alone over the next week.
There is a perception amongst the Chinese, abroad and in China, that the West is not taking this problem seriously enough. This is particularly true for Chinese people in Britain, where there has been confusion over the official advice. There is worry that the strategy of not shutting down public transport, shops and offices could make the problem worse. My relatives in China are so worried that they are already offering to post their own surplus face masks to my family here.
Then there’s the resources problem. Some hospitals in Italy have begun turning away the elderly, instead favouring younger patients with a higher chance of survival. Robert Peston reports that similar considerations are keeping British ministers awake at night. In the last few days, the thought that the British government may be prepared to allow a high infection rate in order to achieve so-called ‘herd immunity’ has panicked even more. China's state tabloid the Global Times is calling the measure, which the British government has now distanced itself from, ‘insane’ in an article widely shared on Chinese social media. Many Chinese calculate that not only would their chance of infection be less in China than in, say, London; they would also at least get a hospital bed if they did become seriously ill.
For its part, China is preparing for a second wave of infections from overseas. The policy on returnees changes daily, tightening as more and more come back. Only three days ago, those arriving in Beijing would have to fill in some forms and self-isolate for a fortnight at home. But in a new policy in effect from yesterday, returnees will have to be quarantined in a government requisitioned venue. Individuals will have to bear the financial cost of quarantine themselves, perhaps an attempt to limit the influx.
As the situation deteriorates in the West, it may not be long before Beijing considers its own Trump-esque flight bans.