In a statement on Tuesday, government said it was ready to repatriate 122 South Africans from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.
The repatriation was ordered by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of February.
Acting government spokesperson for the interministerial task team handling the Covid-19 outbreak in South Africa Phumla Williams said government initially received more than 180 requests from South Africans in Wuhan to be repatriated to South Africa, but more than 60 of them subsequently changed their minds and decided to remain in China.
The flight to fetch them would leave from OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday evening at 9pm.
“On board the flight will be the flight crew from the aircraft company and a total of 15 officials from the department of health and the department of defence (military health),” said Williams.
The flight would stop over in the Philippines on Wednesday for refuelling, to “rest and restock essential foodstuffs needed for the return journey”.
“After the stopover in the Philippines, the aircraft will fly to Wuhan City. Upon arrival, the team will work with our Chinese counterparts but also the staff of our embassy in China, screening our repatriates and checking required travel documents. The flight will leave Wuhan City in the early hours of the morning and land back in South Africa on Friday the 13th.
“In due course, announcements will be made about the arrival of the South Africans home.”
The repatriated citizens would be quarantined in South Africa for an initial period of 21 days, which couls be extended should any person display symptoms of Covid-19 at the identified site.
Government has not revealed exactly where the group will be kept for observation.
“We reiterate that no South Africans coming home returning home are showing any symptoms of the Covid-19 virus. At the appropriate time, the quarantine site will be announced and the details of the site management plan will be shared with members of the public and the media.”
After the three weeks, those individuals who are cleared will be reintegrated into their communities and reunited with their families.
“We urge the South Africans to welcome these fellow citizens with warm hands as they begin to rebuild their lives in the country after what has been a very trying time for most repatriates,” added Williams.
The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that the plane apparently already standing at the ready to evacuate the South Africans trapped in Wuhan, China, had been struggling to find a willing crew, but Health Minister Zweli Mkhize quickly moved to repudiate the report.
“The fear is unfounded but we will not be able to talk much about it because the SANDF, the chief of the army and the [defence] minister have not said anything to us about it,” he added.
SANDF spokesperson Simphiwe Dlamini also denied the report on Friday.
“There is no truth whatsoever about the story,” he said.
Seven cases of coronavirus have been positively diagnosed in South Africa since Friday. They were all part of a group of 10 people who travelled to Italy.
One person treated at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Gauteng has already recovered to the point of being released into quarantine for 14 days at home, it was announced on Tuesday, after she was declared “asymptomatic”.
Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku said the 37-year-old woman had been successfully treated but they were still waiting for the results of a third test to put her entirely in the clear.
The other six patients were all still in hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
(Edited by Charles Cilliers)