Government planning 'mercy flights' to extract Kiwis stuck overseas amid coronavirus pandemic

The Government is working on a plan to extract New Zealanders stuck overseas with "mercy flights" as airlines announce cancellations amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said the plan would likely be "mercy flights" sent from New Zealand to one extraction location where Kiwis would be able to get to. 

"We've got to anticipate that when we've got a whole lot of people offshore who can't get home but may be able to assemble in once place," Peters told reporters on Thursday. 

"We could get a plane to them and bring them home and go through all the security measures at the same time... I can't forecast when that will be at this time."

The Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader had a message for people who might not want the Government to rescue the approximately 80,000 Kiwis abroad for fear of them bringing the virus back. 

"Put yourself in their shoes. They're New Zealanders, they're fellow countrymen and women and we've got to think bigger than that."

It wouldn't be the first time the Government stepped in to help Kiwis overseas affected by the coronavirus. In February, an Air New Zealand flight was chartered to pick up New Zealanders stranded in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus. 

Travel back to New Zealand will be difficult now that Qantas has suspended scheduled international flights from late March until at least the end of May, as the Australian government recommends against all overseas travel.

Air New Zealand has also announced cancellations, suspending 85 percent of its international routes as well as making major reductions to flights across the Tasman to Australia.

Peters' comments came after he announced that Government is raising New Zealand's overseas travel advice to the highest level amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Peters said this is the first time New Zealanders have been advised by the Government against travelling anywhere overseas, which he said reflects the seriousness of the current coronavirus outbreak.

"New Zealanders who travel overseas risk contracting COVID-19. At the same time, health care systems in many countries are under strain and do not have the capacity to support foreigners."

He told reporters it would be "selfish" of Kiwis to travel overseas at this time. 

"It is selfish because they imperil the population back here if they go overseas and come back. They're going to have to self-isolate for 14 days," he said. 

"The reality is, why add to our problems? We've got a huge set of difficulties which we can succeed on but we've got to be smart and very conscious of our collective responsibility towards each other."

Peters said there may be emergency situations where he might have to, in the interest of long-term trade and keeping connections open, get on a plane and secure trade routes. 

He said, in that case, he would self-isolate for two weeks when he returned home.