It was John Jobber’s dying wish to visit the UK, spend time with family and say his goodbyes before returning to Australia and entering palliative care.
The trip was meant to last four weeks, but a year later he is stranded in Ireland, disoriented and getting progressively sicker, and his daughter, Samantha John, fears Emirates cancelling all flights to Australia’s east coast, including his, will be a life sentence.
“When I saw the news I felt physically sick,” John said. “Will Dfat step in and be the cavalry they’re supposed to be for vulnerable people? This is a dying man who’s not safe to travel now, let alone in another four or five months or however long it takes them. Are they just waiting for him to die?”
John Jobber is suffering from end-stage renal failure and prostate cancer, and John says his dementia has become significantly worse in the year he has been away from his home.
“He is on Dfat’s vulnerable list, which, excuse my French, has done sweet fuck all,” John said.
He is staying with his other daughter, Michele Jobber, in Ireland. She is trying to look after him as his condition worsens and the country is swamped with Covid-19 cases and says this has taken an extreme toll on her mental health.
“At times he knows where he is and other times he thinks she is keeping him prisoner and tries to tries to escape,” John said.
“My sister is completely isolated, unable to do anything but supervising for 24 hours a day … She hasn’t been able to work for the entire time he’s been,” she said.
Michele Jobber told Guardian Australia that she is now at risk of losing her house.
“I’ve pretty much burned through my life savings, not that there was much, but there was a buffer there. And that’s not there any more,” she said. This could leave their father homeless in the last months of his life.
“There is no respite care because of the pandemic in Ireland, so I have just had to be there all the time,” she said.
After his original flight with Emirates in March 2020 was cancelled, John Jobber has been trying to get home between lockdowns in Ireland. In November, he finally secured a ticket for the end of March 2021.
But on Saturday the airline suspended all flights to Australia’s east coast indefinitely after the country moved to slash the cap on international arrivals until 15 February. New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have halved their intake, fearing the highly contagious UK variant of Covid-19 could overwhelm quarantine capabilities.
In a tweet, the Emirates customer service account wrote: “Our flights to Australia are closed due to government’s mandate of reduced capacity.
“As much as we’d like to fly you and open more seats, we’re bounded to government and travel restrictions.”
John said she was worried that she may never see her father again. “It breaks my heart. And even if I do see him again, I know it won’t be him that I say goodbye to. He’s gone,” she said.
Ireland has one of the highest per capita case numbers of Covid-19 in the world and is currently in lockdown again. John said her father has already lost his sister in Spain to the disease and she is terrified that if he contracts it he may die alone.
“The irony is he struggled so hard to get there … he had a fall at Christmas and broke his hip and we were trying to get him rehabilitated enough to physically be able to make that flight, to do this one thing he wanted to do before he died,” she said.
“I kind of wish now that we hadn’t succeeded in getting him there because it would be far better for him to have missed out on this trip than to have been trapped there for a year now.”
John says she holds the government accountable for her father’s situation. “I feel like it’s such an uncaring thing to do. To just wash your hands of people,” she said.
The government has been running chartered repatriation flights to Europe but the demand for these has well-outstripped capacity on the flights, with thousands still trying to get home.
Australia’s acting foreign minister, Simon Birmingham, announced on Saturday an additional 20 repatriation flights to be scheduled that would go “over and above” the existing cap on arrivals.
Travellers would be required to quarantine at the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory, as well as in Canberra and Tasmania.
“These flights will fly from priority areas from around the world, making sure that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, off of their intelligence and knowledge of where Australians most need assistance, target those flights,” he said.
Birmingham also said Emirates numbers within the cap would be redistributed to other airlines, but it’s unclear if this guarantees those with Emirates tickets would be given these positions, as tickets are notoriously difficult to acquire.
“There are other carriers here or elsewhere who will be able to bring Australians home using the seats that Emirates would have been able to fill previously,” he said.
The shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, slammed the government on Saturday for its handling of the situation.
“What the government has done is refuse to take responsibility for what is a national responsibility and that is quarantine,” she said.
“Remember, Scott Morrison told Australians he would have the stranded Australians home by last Christmas. Well, here we are, still nearly 40,000 stranded, flights being cancelled.”
This comes as 15 chartered flights filled with 1,200 tennis players and support staff have landed in Australia to quarantine before the Australian Open, many from countries with high rates of the UK variant. Both the Victorian and federal governments have been widely criticised for the perceived double standard.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, defended the decision to go ahead with the event on Saturday.
“There are literally dozens of cities around the world that would pay almost anything to have a grand slam at our expense. We are simply not going to do that … That has no impact whatsoever on the number of returning Australians that are coming into hotel quarantine here,” he said.
But this decision is especially upsetting for John. “It’s outrageous. It just makes smoke come out of my ears to even think about it,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Guardian Australia has contacted Dfat for comment.