In January this year, Ben Orr left Australia for an enviable new paramedic job with the United Kingdom’s NHS health care system.
After learning that Uma, Orr’s wife, would endure a complicated pregnancy, the couple decided Orr would head to London first while Uma, a doctor, stayed in Queensland to be close to her medical specialists. The plan was for him to start work and return to Queensland for the birth of their first child, and they would then fly to London together as a family.
Working as a paramedic and witnessing people die from COVID-19, Orr knew flying home amid the pandemic would be difficult. And then Prime Minister Scott Morrison capped the arrival of Australians from abroad at 4,000 people a week.
This means the limited number of airlines that still fly to Australia are permitted to carry up to 50 passengers only — Australian nationals only — and everyone else’s flights are cancelled, creating a domino effect of chaos for anyone bumped from their original flights. Once they finally get home to Australia, arrivals must spend 14 days in hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Orr was bumped from two flights, but secured an economy seat with Etihad Airways. He finished his last day of hotel quarantine just days out from his wife’s due date.
“My wife’s 37 weeks pregnant, I wanted to get home to be here for the birth,” Orr told HuffPost Australia from Sydney’s Marriott Hotel.
“She’s having it Queensland, so I have to get into Queensland, which is another issue. I have all my paperwork; if I go straight to the airport (from Sydney hotel quarantine), hopefully, I won’t have to quarantine again.”
There are many stories like Orr’s, but the PM doesn’t seem to be too concerned.
“There’s been many opportunities for people to return. If they’re choosing to do so now, they’ve obviously delayed that decision for a period,” Morrison said of the July announcement to cap arrivals, a statement Orr said proved politicians are out of touch.
“They’re stereotyping people as travellers on holiday but people go overseas for different reasons. Like me, I went out there for employment after three years studying paramedicine,” he said.
London has a skills shortage for paramedics, Orr said, while finding employment as a paramedic in Australia is difficult.
“They’ve put us in the too hard basket; the government is spending a lot of money and they don’t want to spend anymore,” he added.
Choosing to try and keep their overseas jobs and not rushing home to unemployment is a scenario literally thousands of Australians committed to at the beginning of the pandemic.
Event manager Michelle McAvoy has lived in the U.K. for seven years. After losing her job in March, she rode out London’s lockdown before hunting for any sort of work. In June, she decided to head home to her family in Queensland, but Cathay Pacific cancelled her flight without notifying her.
“It’s not like we’re coming back because we’ve been holidaying and we’ve ignored all the warnings. We have lives, leases and children here (in London)... now people are stranded and don’t have homes - it’s dire,” she told HuffPost Australia from her friend’s Crystal Palace flat.
“We can’t get back, there is not one single person supporting us. It’s like we’re being punished for ‘not listening’ and ‘going away’. You suddenly feel abandoned.”
After dipping into her superannuation, McAvoy has paid for a total of four flights to Sydney, including one business-class fare, and is due to fly home with Etihad on August 31.
“When you’re growing up, as an Australian citizen, you are taught you have the right to go abroad, live and travel knowing that you can come home at any point,” she said.
“No one would travel if we knew we couldn’t get home. Even people in business class are now getting bumped because airlines are limiting passengers in each cabin to make it fair.”
Etihad confirmed to HuffPost that no passenger or group is prioritised over another, and that staff are proactively calling customers to reschedule.
“The Australian Government has announced there will be a limit of up to 50 passengers per flight allowed to disembark at Sydney International Airport,” an Etihad spokesperson said.
“These are hugely challenging times and we’re adapting to government policy and travel restrictions that are constantly evolving, but we are focused on providing clear and transparent communication to our guests to keep them up to date and informed of any changes.”
Qantas said there are no current flights to London, and repatriation flights will be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
McAvoy explained flying on UAE airlines requires a mandatory COVID test that costs the passenger £120 and is only accepted for 96 hours.
“Every time we get bumped we have to pay another £120 to get a new test at one of the three approved clinics in London so we can board our new flight,” she said.
“I reached out to the Australian Embassy here in July and their email to me was laughable. Basically they told me to strap in because they can’t get us home, they can’t assist and we need to reach out to friends and family for support over the next few months.”
Facebook groups like “Australians in quarantine facilities” are peppered with horror stories of people trying to get home, with many calling on the prime minister to lift the arrivals cap or fund Qantas repatriation flights.
“It seems bizarre that if there’s a backlog of people trying to get into the country and they’re willing to pay their own hotel quarantine, wouldn’t you send the national carrier to pick up people and bring them home?” McAvoy said.
“It’s not the airlines’ fault, it’s the Australian government that has put this cap on.”
Orr, who finally arrived home to his wife in Queensland as this story was published, agreed, and wants Morrison to drop the “you should have come home earlier” attitude.
“It’s inhumane, how people have been treated. I don’t think the government is taking everyone’s scenario into consideration,” he said.
“Any other situation, the government does their best to get people home, but they just don’t care, people are getting fobbed off.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs is yet to respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.