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Bombshell docs reveal scramble for jet to airlift Brits out of covid-hit Wuhan

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SHOCKING government memos reveal the UK’s desperate scramble to airlift Brits out of China as Covid spread out of control.

For the first time, The Sun can exclusively reveal the frantic inner workings of government as they scrambled to understand a mystery virus that ended up killing more than three million people.

Hazmat-clad staff at Wuhan Railway Station on March 24, 2020

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Hazmat-clad staff at Wuhan Railway Station on March 24, 2020Credit: AFP
Some of the 83 Brits and 27 foreign nationals disembark a plane RAF Brize Norton after flying in from Wuhan

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Some of the 83 Brits and 27 foreign nationals disembark a plane RAF Brize Norton after flying in from WuhanCredit: Getty
A convoy of coaches  on January 31, 2020 carrying Brits evacuated from Wuhan

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A convoy of coaches on January 31, 2020 carrying Brits evacuated from WuhanCredit: AFP

The 52-page dossier of emails reveals the frenzied back-and-forth between Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and his staff as they tried to evacuate trapped Brits from Covid-infested Wuhan.

The documents reveal the logistical hell of trying to airlift Brit nationals out of China as the country itself was locking down with hazmat-clad medics roaming the streets.

Emails seen by The Sun show that advisers were warning Raab it was “almost impossible” to evacuate the expats and bring them to safety.

With phones ringing off the hook as the deadly virus took hold of the world, the Foreign Office was plunged into “crisis mode”.

As the situation spiralled out of control in Wuhan, the evacuation flight hired for £778,920 to take hundreds to safety almost didn’t make it off the ground, emails reveal.

Staff frantically fielded a barrage of questions about the uncertainty of the high-risk operation as the threat of Covid became clearer day-by-day.

Concerns about the government’s reputation and the need to keep China happy are also laid bare in the emails.

The world knew nothing about the virus at the time – and the British public were blind to the chaos that was ensuing behind closed doors.

When medics in Wuhan reported a cluster of mystery “pneumonia” cases, it was impossible to predict how the next few years would unfold.

Now, The Sun is unravelling the inner workings of government during the unprecedented crisis – and uncovering what they really knew in the early days of the chaos.

Wuhan lab leak now the ‘most likely’ cause of Covid pandemic and the truth WILL come out, experts tell MPs

Sounding the alarm

In the January and February of 2020, Britain was fumbling in the dark with the rest of the world as it grappled with the explosive spread of a mystery pathogen.

Dominic Raab – the Foreign Secretary at the time – was desperate for information, emails show.

On January 21, he asked for a “1 page note” from staff outlining everything they knew about symptoms, treatment – and how easily it spread.

Raab was told it was a new strain of coronavirus – and had never been identified in humans.

He is very worried about this issue and would like to be kept closely updated on any developments

Foreign Office staffer

Staff relayed China’s claims that the first cases were traced to a live animal market in Wuhan – but they acknowledged “it is unclear from which species of animal the virus originated”.

Four years later, the origins of the virus – and “animal of origin” – has still not been identified after China X, Y, Z.

Two days later, as the situation moved at pace, staff asked Raab for approval to update travel advice to Wuhan.

Raab agreed to the change – but was “very worried”.

The email said: “The Foreign Secretary… asked me to underline that he is very worried about this issue and would like to be kept closely updated on any developments.”

At this time, on January 23, the Foreign Office advised against “all but essential travel to Wuhan” – and wanted their own staff as well as Brit nationals to remain in the city.

All these plans remain subject to the risks… and it is possible they will slip

Foreign Office staffer

But two days later, at 1.48pm on January 25, Raab’s adviser Simon Finkelstein told staff: “I have just received a call… Chris Whitty is likely to change his advice, saying that UK citizens should be evacuated from Wuhan.”

At 9.36pm, an email from Raab’s office asked for the travel advice to be changed “immediately” to advise against “all travel to Hubei Province” and urge Brits to leave.

Earlier, Raab had asked for the travel advice “to go up ASAP”.

But the emails reveal how staff raised concerns about the advice for Brits to flee.

They said it was “problematic” as “we know that in practice it will be almost impossible for them to do so”.

Drawing up the ‘urgent’ airlift operation

As medical advice rapidly changed, Alex Pinfield, the former Head of China Department, told staff they needed to start “urgently working up a plan” to get Brits out of Wuhan.

One option was “hiring coaches to transport UK nationals to another Chinese city which is outside the epicentre region of Hubei province”.

The other option was to charter “an aircraft to evacuate UK nationals in Wuhan to the UK”.

The plan will be dependent on Chinese permissions at many levels which may be hard to secure

Foreign Office staffer

This option eventually came to fruition – with 83 Brits and 27 foreign nationals touching down in the UK on January 31, where Covid cases were about to explode.

But the airlift took careful planning – and came with risks.

Mr Pinfield raised immediate concerns about getting permission from Chinese authorities to even land the plane.

“The plan will be dependent on Chinese permissions at many levels which may be hard to secure,” an email said.

Government plunged into ‘crisis mode’

Shortly before 11pm on January 25, as staff worked long hours, a senior employee asked for the Foreign Office to enter “crisis mode” to cope with the urgency of the airlift plan.

If approved, they said, the costs would be “potentially very high” – but they would initially start with a team of 10 to 15 people.

“If it becomes clear that an assisted departure would not be feasible, we could scale down the crisis quickly and handle the virus outbreak as enhanced business as usual,” they said.

“However I think crisis mode is necessary for the urgent planning work to be completed.”

At 6.37am on January 26, “crisis mode” was authorised and Foreign Office staff swung into action to get Brits out of Wuhan.

The cost of the airlift

But the logistics of organising the evacuation flight are laid bare in the emails.

By 2pm on January 26, a plan had been drafted up.

Staff estimated it would cost £778,920 for a flight to London on a Boeing 747 – with room for 475 people, according to the emails.

They also wanted passengers to stump up £500 each and sign “repay forms”.

But staff pointed out that the it was “highly unlikely” they would be able to get the cash from each individual – and the Foreign Office would need to find £488,000.

Crisis mode is necessary for the urgent planning work to be completed

Foreign Office staffer

Emails also show how Foreign Office employees raised concerns that the £500 charge was “likely to be badly received and may generate significant adverse media coverage”.

Raab said statements would need “to be carefully crafted” to relay to the public “this is the best plan pursuant to the medical advice”.

He also said “we will need sensitive lines on the charge”, the emails reveal.

Just two days after the charge was suggested, staff asked Raab to “urgently review” waiving the cost to board the evacuation flight.

They also asked for spare places on the flight not to be offered to “third country nationals”.

The emails reveal how Downing Street was “requesting answers to questions around waiving of fees and third country nationals”.

If the disease spreads, will we be able to offer the same level of assistance in another province or country?

Foreign Office staffer

It said “they anticipate being pressed hard on these issues at lobby”.

We now know the £500 cost was scrapped after a furious backlash.

According to the documents, the cost of the evacuation flight was taken from the Foreign Office’s “crisis budget”.

It’s not clear if the total final cost turned out to be higher or lower.

And staff raised concerns about a “wider financial risk taken on by the FCO at the end of the financial year”.

Concerns about ‘setting a precedent’

As airlift plans got underway at pace, a senior staff member warned they would about “a risk of setting new precedents with this offer”.

They said Raab would need “be prepared to sustain whatever action we decide to take re-assisted departures, as this will set a precedent”.

They asked: “If the disease spreads, will we be able to offer the same level of assistance in another province or country?

“I don’t need a response on this now, but please do factor this in as the planning develops.”

And they added that “accepting third country nationals significantly complicates our operation”.

The batch of emails also sheds more light on Raab’s phone call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on January 28.

There is nowhere near the capacity in the global charter market for an evacuation at scale, even if we were the only country conducting it

Foreign Office staff

In a briefing before the call, Raab was told China had “been relatively helpful, although there remain some logistical challenges”.

Full information on the discussions between the pair about UK-China relations has been redacted.

On the same day, staff asked Raab to agree to “advise against all but essential travel to mainland China”.

Staff warned China would “not publicly welcome our change in travel advice”.

“But it should not have significant adverse impact on our bilateral relationship,” an email said.

They note “immediate time pressures” and “the exceptional nature of
the request”.

The evacuation flight

On January 30, emails reveal concerns about reputational risks to the Foreign Office – and how to “manage expectations clearly” on the airlift.

An email said: “All these plans remain subject to the risks we are
managing around permissions and a range of other practicalities such as the ability of people to get themselves to the airport, and it is possible they will slip.

“We have been less forward so far in sharing details of our proposed timings so as not to create further reputational risks if we face delays or problems.

“We are developing a script that will need to manage expectations clearly.”

Just hours before the flight departed, there was still a lack of clarity over who would be allowed to board the plane.

The Chinese would almost certainly refuse permission for such a mass exodus

Foreign Office staffer

On January 31 – the day the flight from Wuhan landed at RAF Brize Norton – an email reveals that the company chartering the flight “was close to withdrawing from its contract as the situation there worsened”.

“On the current trajectory of threat, commercial charter firms will soon refuse to fly such missions,” the email said.

“There is nowhere near the capacity in the global charter market for an evacuation at scale, even if we were the only country conducting it and if companies would do it.

“The Chinese would almost certainly refuse permission for such a mass exodus.”

Four years after Britain was first plunged into lockdown, the emails shed light on how the government was making decisions at the very beginning of the pandemic.

But there are still no answers on the origins of Covid.

The Sun’s investigation into origins of Covid

By Imogen Braddick, Senior Foreign Reporter

This 52-page dossier of emails was released to us through a Freedom of Information request.

As part of our investigation into the origins of Covid, we are asking UK government departments to release relevant files that may shed more light on how the pandemic started.

But so far, it has been a struggle to access the information.

Our Freedom of Information request to the Foreign Office was sent in June last year – eight months ago.

It pushed back a decision to release the information eight times.

It repeatedly claimed more time was needed to consider “the balance of public interest” of publishing the files.

Understanding the origins of Covid is in the public interest in order to prevent another devastating global pandemic.

It’s important to find out the truth – and if necessary, hold individuals and organisations to account.

MP Bob Seely, who has been trying to hold a debate in Parliament on the origins of Covid, told me the delay was “appalling”.

He said: “The truth of what happened is more important than sparing either the Foreign Office’s blushes or that of China.

“They have to be held responsible for this. The FCDO needs to answer the questions – and it should do so for more than a month’s [worth of data].

“We need to know for the sake of truth – but also, if it came out of a lab or if it was spliced and diced by humans beings, this is really important for the future of humanity.

“We need to know where the virus came from.”

We had asked for internal and external communications to and from Dominic Raab that mention Wuhan Institute of Virology or Wuhan.

We were only allowed to request one month’s worth of information at a time – and The Sun asked for data dated between January 1, 2020 and February 1, 2020.

On July 14, the Foreign Office replied to our request and confirmed the department does “hold information falling within the terms of your request”.

However, we were told they had “not yet reached a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies”.

We were also told the specific exemption that applied to the request was “Section 27 – International Relations”.

Section 27 means disclosing the information would, or would be likely to, “prejudice the UK’s international relations”.

This includes:

  • Relations between the UK and any other state
  • Relations between the UK and any international organisation or international court
  • The interests of the United Kingdom abroad
  • The promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of its interests abroad

The exemption “covers a broad range of issues” – including exchanges of political views between states, diplomatic matters between states, international trade partnerships, UK policy in relation to other states, and international funding matters.

While campaigners and journalists the the US have had some success filing Freedom of Information requests for information on Covid and its origins, it has been a difficult and lengthy process in the UK.

After the eighth delay from the Foreign Office, we requested an Internal Review – asking why the response has been repeatedly pushed back without an adequate explanation.

We drafted a story on the delay and asked for a statement from the Foreign Office press office.

A day after our request for a statement, the files were released to us.

They told us: “Let me apologise for the delay in our response.

“We have reviewed the issues which contributed to the delay in this case, to ensure that we can provide a better service going forward.”

As we are only allowed to request one month’s worth of information at a time from the Foreign Office, it’s likely that the FOI process will continue to be a slow one.

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