“We are so excited about Christmas this year as we had no idea if we’d be in quarantine, still in Malta or even have to fly somewhere else as none of the flights are guaranteed.”
But not everyone is as lucky. While national cabinet promised to bring home 27,000 Australians between November and Christmas, an estimated 37,000 Australians are still trapped abroad, subject to the cruel lottery of cancelled flights, sky-high fares and being bumped in favour of higher-paying customers, all stemming from Australia’s decision to cap the number of people who can return each week.
Victoria’s added capacity of 1120 arrivals as of this week makes only a small dent in the backlog, although for the lucky – such as the Pope family – it has meant jubilation.
Michael, a firefighter, Brooke a former travel agent and their three children, Max, 7, Mila, 4, and Daisy, 2, are among the first Australians to sample Melbourne’s rebooted quarantine system.
This was supposed to be their gap year travelling the world. But by the time the coronavirus pandemic hit, Brooke was in hospital in Mexico with sepsis from a bacterial infection.
“Brooke almost died but the medical help in Mexico was amazing and saved her life,” Mr Pope said.
“So we have had so many challenges this year but are so grateful for everything as it’s been an absolutely incredible experience for us and the kids.”
The Popes’ itinerary was hastily rewritten as travel bans, flight cancellations and border restrictions caused havoc.
They ventured to Serbia, Iceland and Turkey as they navigated their way around various lockdowns around the world.
“We never planned to go most the countries we ended up in,” he said. “We followed all the rules, kept to ourselves, avoided public transport, had multiple COVID tests but we still had the most amazing time and didn’t take any of it for granted.
“We saw so much and got to experience some amazing sites with next to no tourists. We saw how differently countries dealt with the pandemic and our kids learnt and grew so much. Resilience is something they have certainly learned along with so many valuable life lessons.”
Their journey ended in Malta where they had to seek an extension to their visas when they couldn’t get home in November. Etihad told them in October that they’d been rebooked on a flight from London on December 18.
That would have meant spending Christmas and New Year in quarantine. But when Etihad Whatsapped them about the last-minute availability for the five this week they seized their chance.
But it was not without cost. What can normally be a one-way $40 flight between Malta and London ballooned to $3000 for the five. All up, the family are still waiting on $3500 in refunds for flights never taken but they don’t think they will ever see the $3000 spent on accommodation never used.
Nonetheless, Mr Pope says the family have no regrets and that being resilient in the face of the pandemic was key to making the most of what they could.
But others have fallen foul of the travel bans.
Australian woman Naz Ali (32) and her husband had booked a flight from Sri Lanka on December 12 in September but their trip home was cancelled and she was told she could rebook to travel in January.
When she requested certainty that she, her husband and toddler would be able to fly on that day, the airline quoted her another $12,000 for business fares, saying they had only 25 seats they could sell on the flight into Melbourne.
The Ali family managed to book tickets on a Singapore Airways flight for the couple and their toddler costing another $6000 from Colombo on December 16.
But it means the family will spend Christmas in quarantine under military guard if they are even lucky enough to be allowed to board their new flight.
“I’m just praying that it doesn’t get cancelled too,” she said. Whenever the trio arrive in Australia, they will be charged $4000 for the cost of their quarantine. “I have a job lined up to start teaching in January, I don’t know if I will make it in time if they keep postponing and cancelling my flights,” she said.
“I’m extremely anxious,” she said.
“I keep fearing that I may end up without a job and have to start from scratch again. returning home has been a much more stressful ordeal than it should have been.”
The opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the prime minister had broken his promise to the nearly 40,000 Australians still trying to get home.
“Today Scott Morrison has broken his promise to bring stranded Australians home by Christmas,” Senator Wong said.
“Anyone not back in Australia today won’t make it out of quarantine for Christmas.”
“It would never have come to this if Scott Morrison had taken control of quarantine – which is a federal responsibility,” she said.
“Bringing these Australians home should have been a priority for Scott Morrison for months.”
On Thursday, Mr Morrison told 2GB radio that he had made good on his promise to bring home those Australians who were registered with DFAT at the time he made the pledge.
“What I said was that those who we had registered at that time, and back then that was about 26,700 people. Now, the last figure I saw was that we got 43,800 back since then.”
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Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.