When Julie Maegaard travelled to Denmark to care for her unwell mother in July, she didn’t expect to still be there months later, unable to return to her husband and two sons in Melbourne.
“I’ve lost count of how many politicians I’ve written to,” she said.
“I’m not getting answers to one simple question: who is putting you more at risk? A fully vaccinated traveller arriving on an international plane where everyone was PCR tested before boarding, or a person from NSW or Victoria going to the supermarket?
“Why should it matter where you’re stranded?”
Australians stuck overseas say they are no closer to getting home despite the federal government announcing international travel would resume at 80% double-dose vaccination targets.
They cite soaring flight costs and continued booking cancellations as near-impossible barriers to returning to shore.
Since attempting to secure a flight home, Maegaard has lodged complaints with the Victorian Ombudsman and the AHRC, but said the Australian attitude was often “anger that anyone asked to leave”.
“If you did, it’s your fault you can’t come back,” she said.
On Friday, 1 October, prime minister Scott Morrison said Australian states would be able to reopen to international travellers from mid-November after hitting vaccination targets.
Seven-day home quarantine would be available for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents, provided their jab was approved for use or “recognised” by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The same day, Qantas announced it would bring forward the resumption of international flights by a month, to 14 November, beginning with three return flights a week from Sydney to London and Sydney to Los Angeles.
Maegaard said the government’s announcement would get stranded Australians back home “in theory,” but with more than 45,000 people still overseas, she had “no chance” of knowing how long it would take to find a seat on a flight.
“When the border opening takes place, there will be an enormous backlog of people creating a bottleneck situation – one that makes me anxious and rightfully fear that I may not be back home with my children by Christmas,” she said.
‘Nothing until March’
LJ Ferrara started the Facebook page Expats Coming Home in 2018, as a public forum for Australians looking to repatriate. Since the pandemic, the group had amassed more than 20,000 followers, and became a platform to share the struggles of being trapped overseas.
Ferrara said it was “harder now” to get home than “at any point since the pandemic started”, in part due to harsh travel caps hitting airlines.
NSW has been allowing 750 travellers in a week on about 13 commercial international passenger flights, down from a peak of 3,000. Everyday, 6,000 empty seats arriveat Sydney airport each day.
“People are so desperate, and there’s no clarity, there’s just so many questions,” Ferrara said.
“Twice a week people will tell me they’ve been told they’ve had to cancel all passengers on a flight. I’ve had people private message me needing to get a flight out and being told there’s nothing until March.
“People get an exemption to fly, but it doesn’t give you a seat. People had loved [ones] about to die trying to get a priority seat. Everyone that wants to come home right now is only coming home because of reasons like that, because it’s so expensive.”
Ferrara said Scott Morrison’s roadmap to reopening was “deceptive”.
“Time and time again, people overseas get their hopes raised. Australians overseas don’t need a holiday, they just want to come home,” she said.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA) welcomed the NSW government’s announcement to allow greater overseas travel when vaccination targets were met.
But it said practical issues would need to be resolved “quickly”.
While pre-pandemic, 2,000 international flights operated to and from Australia each week, the number had progressively dropped to about 200 commercial international passenger flights weekly.
BARA executive director Barry Abrams said international airlines had “consistently” been seeking engagement with governments at all levels to discuss how to plan for the safe and gradual increase of flights and passengers.
“Unfortunately, there has been limited engagement with industry to develop sound plans that can be operationalised effectively,” he said in a statement.
Abrams said vaccination and testing requirements provided the opportunity to move from separate state authorities managing passengers and crew to a “set of clearly defined expectations and operating practices”.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce told a Boston meeting of airline bosses on Tuesdaythat home quarantine should be a temporary fix, and isolation requirements should be lifted as soon as possible to kickstart the tourism and business sector.
The risk international travellers pose is too small to justify continued arrivals caps, chair of epidemiology at Monash University Catherine Bennett argues.
“We have thousands of known cases, we’re talking about if you are bringing in 1,000 people, you might see two test positive. It’s such an imperceptible difference to risk,” she said.
“These are people who will be managed, known, visible, traced, as opposed to people who are in the community who may have the virus but are undetected.”
Bennett said the greatest concern would be international travellers bringing in new variants of the virus, but monitoring and testing would significantly lower the risk.
“Now we’re in a situation that people will be allowed to come home, but they won’t be able to get a flight,” she said.
RMIT associate professor Con Stavros said the tourism and education sector had “breathed a huge sigh of relief” at the prospect of international border restrictions loosening.
The most recent Flight Centre data showed international flight inquiries were up 112% during the week ending 4 October, compared to the previous week.
Fiji led international flight inquiries, making up 62%, followed by New Zealand.
Data provided by Kayak.com.au found the average price for an international flight in October was $2,603, and didn’t drop below $2,300 until 2022, where flights were available at $1,754.
The average flight price for Sydney to London was $1,922.
But Stavros said there would be “hard work ahead” to persuade the international community that travelling to Australia was “feasible and reliable”.
He said the problem wouldn’t be demand to leave the country, but the complexity of returning.
“Uncertainty about state-by-state rules, possible changes to quarantine requirements and the general uncertainty in life fuelled by Covid-19 has raised formidable barriers,” he said.