Their fury deepened as it emerged the US government was planning an airlift and the French had organised an evacuation by coach
THE CONTRAST could hardly be more stark. The usually bustling streets of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, were eerily quiet, while in the wards and corridors of its hospitals there were scenes of ever-increasing chaos.
From his apartment in the city, British PE teacher Kharn Lambert looked out at the deserted streets with mounting anxiety, but was most concerned about his visiting 81-year-old grandmother, Veronica Theobald.
The pensioner, from Lancaster, is too frightened to go out because her debilitating lung condition – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – means that she may not survive a bout of the deadly coronavirus which has already claimed 42 lives as it sweeps across central China.
“She needs about 18 different medicines each day and, if she caught this virus, I’m afraid it would kill her,” Lambert said.
Theobald arrived in Wuhan in early December and was due to return to the UK today, but her flight was one of those cancelled when the city was effectively closed off to the world last week. She has just a week’s supply of her vital drugs left.
As Lambert and his grandmother waited anxiously, elsewhere in the city British expats were exchanging angry messages on social media about the apparent intransigence of the Foreign Office in response to their pleas to “get us out of here”.
Their fury deepened as it emerged the US government was planning an airlift and the French had organised an evacuation by coach.
The British Government, by contrast, was still saying that there were no plans to evacuate Britons because it might increase the risk of spreading the infection.
The view was shared by some experts, but failed to convince those trapped in Wuhan.
One angry British expat simply told fellow members of a social media chat group: “London thinks you’re all dead!”
Another unnamed member of a WeChat group – the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp – stormed: “There hasn’t been any engagement with the British citizens in Wuhan by the Foreign Office.
“It’s an utter * ***take that we’re being left here like this.”
Yesterday, the British government finally relented, concluding that the threat posed by the virus was “worse than they had realised”, and in a dramatic U-turn announced they were devising plans for an airlift of British nationals.
After The Mail on Sunday told Lambert of the development, he said: “The French and American embassies seemed to be doing everything they could to provide their citizens with every opportunity to leave the city, while the Foreign Office appeared to be sitting back to see how things developed.
“I’m glad they’ve finally seen sense to get us out of here, but I have to say that, since the lockdown, no one in any official capacity tried to connect with the British community in Wuhan to see if there was anything that we could be assisted with.”
Anxiety grew when Chinese state media reported an admission by President Xi Jinping that his country was facing a “grave situation”. Such candour is rare from a regime that prides itself on keeping problems out of public view.
At the same time, an increasing number of social media video clips were laying bare the appalling situation inside Wuhan’s overcrowded hospitals, including footage of a doctor apparently collapsing.
In other videos, staff were seen shouting at patients. Some exhausted medical workers were reported to be wearing adult nappies because demand meant they had no time to use the lavatory.
As the day wore on, opinion in Whitehall began to shift, with the realisation that even the might of China was unable to cope with coronavirus. They, too, saw the footage from Wuhan’s hospitals and concluded that the local medical system was in “complete meltdown”.
One senior government source admitted that leaving the expat Britons in Wuhan “could prove to be a death sentence. We need to get people out”.
For three days, Wuhan has been a city alone after the authorities closed bridges and tunnels connecting different districts. On Friday, the government there announced an effective curfew and all journeys by private car were banned.
Lambert, who has lived in China for five years, was sitting down to watch his beloved football club Liverpool play Wolverhampton Wanderers on television in the early hours of Thursday when he spotted a newsflash that Wuhan was to be placed in quarantine.
He said: “Most people were asleep, of course, but then they woke up to find they were effectively locked in. I was utterly gobsmacked and so was everyone else.”
Wuhan is home to between 200 and 300 Britons – businessmen, English teachers and students.
“It’s a complete ghost town out there,” said Lambert. “Normally the place is thronged with people but now it’s just dead with only a few food shops open.”
He ventured out on Thursday to replenish stocks of food, but found many store shelves “picked clean”.
“It was definitely panic-buying, but you can’t really blame people – no one knew when the shops would be resupplied, or how things would develop,” he said.
He has been following careful precautions to protect his vulnerable grandmother after his trip out, disinfecting his shoes, clothing, door handles and any items he has bought, then putting all his clothes in the washing machine before taking a shower.
According to reports, America has arranged a charter flight for its nationals.
The evacuation details for Lambert and Theobald were far more sketchy.
Officials were reporting that 1 372 people across China had been infected. Few believe them – and the numbers of cases reported elsewhere around the world have begun to grow.
As frantic efforts to build and equip two hospitals in less than a week continued, it emerged the dead included Liu Wudong, 62, a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan.
The Chinese government has sent 450 medical staff to Wuhan along with 14 000 protective suits and 110 000 pairs of gloves, masks and goggles.
Australia confirmed four cases of coronavirus, as did Malaysia. France has three and five were reported in Hong Kong.