20 Aug Please, just let us go home
Andrew Tillett – Australian Financial Review – Thursday 20 August 2020
Isabelle Joseph hasn’t hugged her dad since January. The 3-year-old and her mother, Susanna, are among thousands of Australians locked out of their own country because of coronavirus.
They are victims of a cap imposed by the national cabinet that limits international arrivals to 4000 a week.
“We just want to get back home,” Susanna tells The Australian Financial Review from Bangalore in India.
“The most important emotional concern is that her father has lost out on being with her over these seven months since she has grown so much and vice versa.”
The cap, introduced following demands from the states, was brought in last month to stop the hotel quarantine system from being swamped and was rolled over by the national cabinet to October 24.
But with the official inquiry into hotel quarantine confirming 99 per cent of the cases in the Victorian outbreak can be traced back to failures in infection control at two Melbourne hotels, and NSW now on edge that a security guard acquired the virus at a Sydney hotel, maintaining the system poses a dilemma.
Mandatory hotel quarantining for Australians returning from overseas was introduced in March after it was found many people were flouting requirements to isolate themselves at home for two weeks.
Former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy credits it as one of the reasons for Australia’s initial success at staving off the first wave of infections, saying in hindsight he wished it had started sooner.
Australian National University infectious disease expert Peter Collignon says with the Melbourne outbreak and security guards in Sydney and Perth testing positive to COVID-19, hotel quarantine was a potential weak link.
“The reality is there is a lot more of the virus overseas than there is in Australia,” he says.
“Where we have people coming back from overseas – and I can’t see how we stop that – then it’s a high-risk situation.”
Collignon says some form of mandatory fortnight-long quarantine is “not negotiable” but suggests those who come from countries where the virus is less prevalent, such as New Zealand, could be allowed to isolate at home and be monitored through the use of ankle bracelets and phone tracking apps.
“If somehow we could be assured people are where they are meant to be, that is a possibility,” he says.
“Until we get a safe and effective vaccine, we’re going to have to keep up that sort of quarantine, whether that is in hotels or home monitoring.
“With 4000 people a week, the hotels seem to be able to cope. When it was up at 10,000 it was difficult.”
University of NSW infectious disease expert Raina MacIntyre believes there is no option but to continue using hotels given people’s unwillingness to follow the rules when they were allowed to isolate at home.
She says monitoring people at home quarantine would raise privacy issues. Using the hotels also delivers the accommodation industry an economic lifeline.
MacIntyre says the transmission of the virus to guards highlights the importance of improving infection control and “meticulous” cleaning of common areas such as lobbies.
“It is quite feasible to look at models at improving capacity,” she says.
Former Health Department secretary Jane Halton is conducting a review into hotel quarantine arrangements but the states are facing pressure to lift the cap on international arrivals sooner than October.
The ban on Australians departing the country is the other side of the same travel restriction coin. In addition to the risk of catching the virus overseas, the government argues that stopping Australians from leaving means they don’t need to come back and add to demand for hotel quarantine.
Federal MPs are being bombarded by desperate Australians and their families wanting to come home but cannot because of the cap.
Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson says the states should look at lifting the limit.
“I’m very concerned about the difficulties many Australians are encountering when trying to come home,” he says.
“As Border Force confirmed to the COVID-19 committee, we must boost the state quarantine capacity to facilitate people coming home more quickly and easily. That will be helped when Victoria comes back online but I also hope states consider lifting their caps from their current very low levels.”
Several Facebook groups have sprung up, with talk of a class action lawsuit being organised to force an increase. Many are furious the government is allowing a pilot program of 300 foreign students to come to Adelaide in September while they are denied entry.
Laurence Muir-McMurtrie, who has set up the Aussie Expats Abandoned Abroad Facebook group, suggests the government should pay Australians trying to get back an allowance to help them survive.
“Most Aussie expats still pay taxes back home whilst living or working abroad, but are not a burden on the social, welfare, education or other taxpayer funded government services,” he says.
“During normal times there are tens of thousands of Aussie expats living or working abroad, but the Australian government’s desire to encourage all Aussie expats to return home does not take into account the complexities of relocating an established life abroad that may include a family with children at school, property and possessions and more.
“If we were at war, the government would do everything it could to protect the interests of its citizens abroad, well ladies and gentlemen we are at war, we are at war with this virus and the Australian government has a duty of care to protect its citizens. If it doesn’t, what is the purpose of having a government in the first place?”
Under the cap, Sydney Airport is limiting arrivals to 350 passengers a day, Perth Airport 75 a day and Brisbane 500 a week. Tullamarine is offline while Victoria tries to bring the virus under control.
Though airlines have slashed the number of flights to Australia (and in the case of Qantas and Virgin Australia, grounded their international fleets entirely), the cap means those planes coming into Sydney, for instance, are limited to no more than 50 passengers per flight.
The rationing of seats has turned getting a ticket home into a lottery. Many of those stranded overseas have had flights cancelled, or have been bumped and rebooked on flights weeks and months away.
Passengers are being told that if they upgrade to business class, they are much more likely to get home.
Vanessa Pilla and wife Joanne Cooper are among those on edge, hoping they will be on an Emirates flight on Thursday out of London, where they have lived for five years.
The pair planned to move back to Sydney last month when Ms Cooper’s teaching job finished but their flight on July 28 was cancelled, as was their rebooked one for August 11.
Paying $15,000 each for business class seats was unaffordable.
“Apparently we are on the flight but there is no guarantee,” Pilla says.
“Emirates have made it clear there is only 17 economy class seats available on the plane.”
Pilla bristles at Scott Morrison’s declaration when imposing the cap last month that Australians had had plenty of warning to get home, saying with jobs and leases it was not easy to quickly uproot your life. She wants the cap gone.
“It just feels very unjust,” she says of the cap. “I don’t think Australians appreciate that right to return.
“It’s just a rollercoaster of emotions when you just want to set up home again.”
Another Australian hoping to get home on Thursday is Lauren Farmer. With help from her parents, she spent £2500 ($4570) to buy a business class Qatar Airways fare after she was bumped from her August 5 flight.
Farmer needs to return home to Canberra so she can apply for a British spouse visa after marrying her husband last month. Her temporary permit expires on September 10.
Farmer, a polar tour guide, was in Antarctica when COVID-19 hit and was evacuated via Argentina to the United Kingdom on March 17.
“I don’t think any of us realised how long these restrictions would be,” she says.
“The Australian government decision is putting us into a difficult spot. Now that passengers are paying for their own hotels, I don’t understand why the caps are in place.”
Joseph and her daughter Isabelle left Melbourne in January to visit her mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment.
Their flight home for March 31 was cancelled, with Singapore Airlines saying there would be flights available in July. But those, too, were cancelled.
She has virtually had to set up house in India, adding to financial constraints.
While two repatriation flights from India are planned for Saturday and Wednesday, Joseph says other governments have been much more proactive in getting its citizens and residents home.
“We are so disappointed with the way the government has handled things,” she says. “Families are being torn apart and devastated. It is not the Australia we know of.”