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My partner and I have been living and working in the United Kingdom for the past two years. We were booked to fly home in early August 2020 as my work contract was up and with it my visa. Spoiler: we are still not home.
I get the sense now that Australians back home understand the consequences faced by the thousands affected by the decision to halve the caps on returning Australians earlier this month, and that it’s not just a flight that they have lost.
We have been exporting our stories of misfortune for months now: flight cancellations, deaths in the family, lost jobs, relationship breakdowns, eye-watering flight ticket prices and in some cases, homelessness.
Despite months on end of desperate pleas, we have only just felt like our fellow Australians are coming to our defence as Victoria prepares to host the Australian Open. And even then, our country still remains split on whether we should be allowed home.
When we lost our first flight back in August, we were given a 48-hour window by my work to decide if we would chase another flight home leaving in a month’s time, or if I would sign a six-month contract extension. We took the option that didn’t have the threat of homelessness attached to it.
During our extra months stuck here we have gone through the stress of my partner possibly losing his job, as his workplace prepared a round of redundancies. He survived the cuts, but the stress was sickening as we rely on both incomes to stay afloat. Not being able to simply return home puts a strain on you that’s hard to describe.
We figured that my six-month contract would be ample time for our government to smooth out the bumps in the system but here we are, almost six months later, facing the same uncertainty and stress with a flight booked for 6 February.
In light of the 1,200 tennis players and their entourages that were simultaneously let in while we were shut out, it’s hard to accept that the new caps were the government’s only option. Taiwan, a country with a similar population to Australia, has admitted vastly more arrivals and remains a success story in suppressing Covid in the community. The conversation around Covid in Australia has become so toxic and paranoid that even new cases in quarantine can be met with sensationalised reporting.
The most frustrating thing is that this nightmare is avoidable. As it stands, the act of booking your plane ticket is one that causes enormous stress. From that point forward it’s a date you dread because every time you don’t make it on a flight it breaks your heart.
The next affordable flight could be as far as three months away, and with multiple cancellations a common experience, too many people remain stuck. A key reason for these cancellations is the limited capacity of the quarantine system. This capacity can fluctuate, leaving airlines to sell tickets with a degree of blindness to the number of passengers they can fly with on the day.
Booking a flight is simple but predicting which flight will go is near impossible. Nothing remains stable, borders close, airlines stop flying, transit countries prohibit you from landing, and then there’s the risk that the Australian government will change the caps. On Friday, Emirates suspended flights from the UK, affecting more Australians trying to return home.
No amount of number spinning or photo ops with a tired, relieved returning family can hide that fact that the number of people registered with DFAT as wanting to return only increases. One contributor has been Australians who have been granted permission to leave. For example, in the month of December 2020, 17,800 made it home, aided and unaided, while 12,100 departed. I don’t disagree with a policy that permits people to leave with the intention to return, as ultimately it is one of compassion. However, not providing the quarantine capacity to get people back home is unnecessarily cruel.
There are four ways people make it home, starting with wealth. Then there’s blind luck or sending your local MP the most personal details of your life and hoping they pity you enough to pick up the phone and call DFAT. Finally, there are our heroes: a handful of trusted travel agents who we almost exclusively book through now, as scammers have become so prevalent. They have freely provided us with vital travel advice and some have worked 18-hour days to make sure that their very fragile clients make it home. One of them even reported having worked through their family Christmas.
One part of the solution is simple: we need a strong quarantine system fit-for-purpose and made to size and we needed it yesterday. Increasing quarantine capacity would help end our nightmare and remove the larger bottleneck of people forced to fight for limited spaces on flights while living in limbo for months on end – sometimes without support. Quarantine will be a fact of life well into the future and it boggles the mind how our federal government remains missing in action with no clear plan.
Source: The Guardian
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