The Savanah family fell victim to the fallout when Etihad bumped them from flights they had booked in August to fly home in November. They were packed and ready to go but told the bad news just three days out from their departure date.
The family had to scramble to find accommodation in London while they played the cruel lottery alongside tens of thousands of Australians caught abroad as they try to secure flights at prices they could afford.
But the Savanahs got lucky when they were confirmed for one of the final flights out of Heathrow to make it home and complete their hotel quarantine in time to be released at 12.01am Christmas Day.
The flights were secured at the enormous cost of £1200 per ticket, or $6400 for the three in total, but Rita considers herself one of the lucky ones, with nearly 40,000 Australians still stranded overseas.
Rita’s 21-year-old son Séan was waiting for the trio to arrive from their Brisbane flight at their family home in Chatswood. It was the first time the family have been together in 12 months.
“We feel fortunate to be home just in time for Christmas,” Rita told the Sun Herald.
But she said Australians overseas should not be denied entry to their own country and that hotel quarantine, which costs $3000 per person on top of their flights, needs to be more humane.
“We flew back on a flight with only fifty other people; it seems unfair, even illegal to prevent Australian citizens coming home,” she said. “The camaraderie of Australians in quarantine at the same time as us has helped everyone to survive being in a space with no open windows for two weeks.”
Ms Savanah called on the government to make more use of Australia’s rural areas to allow people fresh air during their two-week quarantine without risking public health.
“People could be bussed to rural areas to quarantine there – what about university accommodation that was once used to house foreign students or a temporary tent city?” she said. “That’s how desperate Australians are to get home that these would be better options.”
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the federal government needed to establish a national quarantine system with greater capacity for returning Australians.
“I wish [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison had delivered on his promise to have you home by Christmas but we will keep doing all we can to stand up for you,” Senator Wong said in a video message.
In his Christmas message, Mr Morrison did not acknowledge stranded Australians whom he had promised to get home by Christmas.
But he has defended his pledge saying that the government had returned the number of Australians registered as wanting to get home at the time he made his promise but that the backlog had grown because more people were being added to the list.
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Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.