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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

April 6, 2021

Stories

Returning Home 9 minute read

Ashlee, Jenny and Boo

When our fashion editor Ashlee started planning for the birth of her first baby, mid-pandemic, she knew she wanted her mum to be there with her. Her mum lives in Australia and Ashlee in London, though they are incredibly close and speak every day. In a previous life, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but deep in the middle of a global pandemic and increasingly strict border controls going in and out of Australia meant that her hope of having her mum there for the birth was challenging. After a stressful time waiting for approval from the Australian government to leave the country, and several cancelled and rebooked flights, her mum arrived five days after her daughter Boo was born. But then she couldn’t get home again.

Interview Ashlee Barrett-Bourmier

AAshlee: Hi, mama.

JJenny: Hello, darling.

So I want to talk about the fact that you are struggling to get back home to Australia after being here [in London] for over three months. Because of Covid-19, Australia has essentially closed its international borders and coming and going is extremely difficult. You have recently been dealt a blow with the cancellation of your flight for the second time. So, just tell me your story from the beginning, about why you have come over and how returning has become a nightmare.

At the beginning of last year, 2020, it was a very exciting time because we found out that you and Ed [Ashlee’s husband, Ed Bourmier] were pregnant with your first baby and that you were due in October.  Of course, like most Mums I wanted to be there to support and help you both emotionally and practically once the baby was born. Living in Australia meant me travelling to the U.K. which I have done many times before as I had lived in England for 20 years. Around about that time, the coronavirus situation worldwide was only just starting to become an issue. As time went on, we realised that it was very, very serious and in March, the Australian Government banned all international travel with a number of limited exceptions.  Leaving the country and returning was no longer permitted much to the shock of many, particularly those Australians needing to travel to, or wishing to return from other countries.

Did the Government say at that point when the ban would end?

No there was no end date; the decision would be reviewed as time went on.
It was a huge shock, because in my lifetime... and I am 66; nothing like this had ever happened. I do not think anyone realised the impact it would ultimately have on so many people. It then became apparent that I might struggle to actually be allowed to make the trip to the U.K. and then return later. I desperately wanted to come and be with you, and you obviously wanted me here, because you have no family in the U.K. I just wanted to be here to support you, like any other mum would want.

So, what happened?

The only way for an Australian citizen to leave the country was to obtain a government exemption. One of the permitted reasons for travel out of the country was on compassionate leave and after a lengthy application with supporting documentation to support my case I was fortunately granted authorisation to travel. I was very lucky, as three out of four applications are rejected! What I did not really consider, or appreciate at the time, was that it was going to be more difficult to get back into the country. Once Australia closed its borders, only Australian citizens would be permitted to return. Those returning citizens are then subject to mandatory quarantine for 14 days in hotels organised by each State. Initially the Government paid for the quarantine but very quickly this was changed and returning citizens are now billed up to $3000 each. The quarantine regime is one of the strictest in the world and there are almost no exemptions. Returnees are housed in hotels with varying standards and most rooms have no opening windows so for 14 days there is no access to fresh air.  Exercising outside the room is virtually non-existent and families of up to four spend the entire time in one room without any contact during that time.  Food is delivered to the door as well as linen and cleaning items. Tests are carried out regularly during the stay. It is quite brutal for many. However, I understood this was a requirement and so was aware of the consequences. 

I was always confident you would get the exemption Mum. So you decided you would come regardless and you were prepared to go through quarantine.

Of course. I knew how important it was to you to have me with you at such a joyful time. Anyhow, after getting the exemption I immediately booked a flight with Emirates, one of the only airlines still flying in and out of Australia. Qantas, the Australian national airline completely suspended all international flights almost immediately.  Available flights were very limited, and I was very appreciative that I was able to secure an economy seat for travel in October, returning the day after Christmas. I thought the timing was great as I could spend Christmas with you and the new baby and when I returned, I would be able to cope with the quarantine regime. Initially, the Government had not restricted the numbers of returning Australian passengers but in July there was an issue with lack of protocols in one of the State’s quarantine hotels and the Government introduced a cap on the numbers of citizens returning and since that time it has been an absolute nightmare for tens of thousands of Australians trying to return to their home country. Only 4000 Australians per week were to be allowed into Australia instead of 2 million, as the Government argued that the capacity for quarantine was overwhelming. To date there are almost 40,000 Australians registered as wanting to return home and are unable to do so. To my knowledge Australia is one of the only Western Democracies who has restricted its citizens from freely returning to their home country. That meant that the few airlines still flying to and from Australia were then severely restricted in passenger numbers with planes only bringing about 30 passengers per flight. Not a very viable commercial position to be in. This meant the beginning of many cancellations and suspension of services and produced an enormous back log of flights. I was cancelled off my flight after Christmas and was not able to get another flight until the end of February. I then realised that if I booked a more expensive fare, I might be less likely to be cancelled in the future. I then made the decision to book an expensive Business class ticket in the hope that I could secure an earlier date and that the booking would be more certain.

And I guess, at the beginning I was like, "Well, that's so ridiculous. They're moneymaking out of this." But actually, to make those jumbo jets financially viable to fly, they probably could only take people who were paying for business class, or first class, seats.

Exactly. So, already, by the time I had left in October, people were really struggling to get back to Australia.

So returning to your own country was becoming more difficult particularly for those who didn’t have the means to fund such expensive flights. Didn’t you say that business class flights one way were costing upwards of £7000?

That’s right, so if you don’t have the money you are left behind. Such inequality. Can you imagine the cost to bring a young family home?  Some families in desperation are paying fares totalling more than £20000 one way!

So, you had your first flight cancelled. And now, what has happened?

I was re-booked onto a flight for the 19th of January. I was confident that would go ahead as I had my very expensive seat confirmed and the flight was confirmed as well. However, four days before I was due to fly, Emirates made the decision to suspend all flights to and from the East Coast of Australia because of the passenger caps being halved after a quarantine worker tested positive for Covid-19 in Australia.  One case!  Queensland, which was my destination, had their passenger numbers slashed from 1000 per week to only 500 per week which meant flights could only carry about 25 passengers. It is not difficult to realise that keeping those routes could not be sustained.

So you were cancelled again. It was a terrible day. You were really distraught. And for me as well… I wasn't even the person who couldn't get home. I know you kept saying, "I just want to go home. I just want to go home." It very much felt like an air of ... You've just been forgotten about by everyone. There's no one that you can turn to. You can't go to your government, because they won't help you. You can't go to the airlines, because they won't help you. You've got to fend for yourself here. And that is terrifying.

I was shocked at the impact it had on me. I immediately thought, "Oh, my God, what if I can’t get home?"  It really felt like my own country had abandoned me by further restricting the numbers of citizens who could return. I cried all day! I actually felt fear. The idea that you can’t return to the safety of your own country was terrifying. I cannot imagine what it must be like for other Australians who are stranded in the U.K. and other parts of the world who are in incredibly vulnerable situations. At least I am safe living here with you in your home. I have an independent income, with no issues with expiring visas and access to public health unlike so many people who are not so lucky. I have heard some very distressing stories of people trapped in dreadful circumstances ranging from life threatening illnesses, mental health problems, expired visas, homelessness, loss of jobs and income, and without any prospect of finding a way home.  For many it is complete despair and hopelessness. A very tragic situation. These people are not tourists. They are just everyday people wanting to return home for a whole range of reasons.

Isn’t it a Human Right to be able to return to your country of citizenship?

Well, my understanding is that Australia is the only Western Democracy which does not have some form of Human Rights Act. So that is pretty scary as well. 

Have you been able to get another flight?

I was offered a flight in April, four months after my initial flight was cancelled and that was assuming that by then Emirates would be back flying to the East Coast, so nothing guarantee but it was the only available Business seat into Brisbane. I then decided to try to get a flight that flew anywhere in Australia so I was able to change my flight to the 18th of February, returning to Perth on the west coast of Australia which meant after quarantining there, I would have to pay for another 5-hour flight from Perth to Brisbane to complete my journey home.

You would have to do your hotel quarantine in Perth, and you have to pay for that don’t you?

Yes. Hotel quarantine is mandatory and costs $3000 for 14 days. Unserviced rooms, usually no fresh air with locked windows and no access to the outdoors and very average food. I was shocked to hear that if unaccompanied children arrive, they are also required to complete 14 days of quarantine. A carer or parent is encouraged to stay with them during that time but if that is not possible all children under 18 years of age must be isolated on their own as is required for adults. They are housed close to a nurse and if they are very young children they must be totally isolated in a hospital. Very few exemptions are given to carry out their quarantine at home!

Oh no. I do not believe it! They’re on their own in a room all day and all night?

I believe so. They are in the facility which houses passengers who have tested positive as well. Presumably, there are not too many children in this situation but that is certainly the policy of the NSW government.

Wow! Okay so getting back to your flights… You changed your booking to fly from London to Perth and hoped that this flight would go ahead and were confident that you would finally be going home. However, what has just happened?

Well, just when I thought I was sure of a flight, the U.K. government announced that flights from Dubai were banned so that meant my flight would once again be cancelled as Dubai is the transit route through to Australia. So, I’m now back to square one with no way of getting home again. It will all start again, trying to find my way back. It is so stressful, and I am filled with anxiety. I know I do not have the problems which so many others are suffering. It is a very sad situation for you as well as I know how desperately you want to come home with the baby, but I don’t see that being possible for a long time. With passenger caps continually subject to change, hugely expensive airfares and quarantine fees, constant cancellations, international border closures and airline suspensions, it is just too dangerous and uncertain to travel.

It breaks my heart that I can’t share the joy of my beautiful new baby with the rest of my family. Who knows when I will be able to travel home?

My mum was able to register with the Australian Government to be considered for a special Government Facilitated flight and was very fortunate to secure a seat last week.  She flew out a short time ago and is now safely back in Australia but in quarantine in Darwin. Once she completes her 14 days, she will take another flight from there back to Brisbane. She was extremely relieved but conscious that many others were not so lucky.  These special flights have been organised by the Government, but fares are still expensive and will only bring a fraction of the almost 40,000 Australians stranded around the world back to their home country.