ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday suspended flights to and from China with immediate effect, a civil aviation official said, but it is not evacuating tens of thousands of its nationals who are working or studying there.
The number of known cases of coronavirus has exceeded 9,600, and at least 213 people have died. No deaths have been reported outside China so far.
At least 22 nonstop flights are operated weekly between China and Pakistan – two of them by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and 10 each by Air China and China Southern Airlines.
“We are suspending all direct flights to and from China until Feb. 2,” Abdul Sattar Khokhar, senior joint secretary at the Aviation Division of Pakistan, told Arab News. “We will review our decision after Feb. 2,” he added, but declined to comment about the reason for the suspension.
The decision came hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. The virus has spread to at least 18 other countries.
While the US, Australia and the UK have flown their citizens out of Wuhan — a city of 11 million people in Hubei province and the center of the outbreak — and more countries are preparing to evacuate their nationals from affected areas, Pakistan is following WHO recommendations and is not taking such steps for now.
About 28,000 Pakistani students are studying at Chinese universities, with more than 500 of them in Wuhan, according to Foreign Ministry data.
“We believe that right now ... it is in the larger interest of the region, world, country (Pakistan) that we don’t evacuate them now,” Dr. Zafar Mirza, who advises Prime Minister Imran Khan on health issues, told the media on Thursday.
“This is what the WHO is saying, this is China’s policy and this is our policy as well,” he said, ignoring evacuation pleas from Pakistani students and their parents.
Pakistan is taking precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Passengers are being screened at the country’s four major airports and all health facilities have been put on high alert.
Its National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said in a statement on Friday that around 12,000 passengers had been screened so far, and confirmed that no coronavirus case has been reported in Pakistan.
The authority has requested that exports of disposable face masks and gloves be stopped to ensure that first aid supplies are available at all health care units to prevent the virus outbreak in Pakistan.
“It is requested that the export of N95 face mask and hand gloves outside Pakistan from land, air and sea routes be banned forthwith and until further advice,” it said.