The Australian Border Force will allow a UK citizen to fly home to London to work as an emergency doctor after initially denying him permission to depart.
Oliver Meller-Herbert on Thursday revealed he, his wife and their two young children were stranded in Sydney facing an uncertain future, even though he had told authorities he planned to leave Australia permanently with his family.
Their flight to the UK via France, where his wife is a citizen, leaves on Monday, but they had not been given a travel exemption despite applying for one in May. The lease on their home also ends Monday, and the family feared they would lose the money spent on flights and have to pay to stay in a hotel.
While the family are now permanent residents of Australia, their family members in the UK are elderly and want to spend time with their children. This combined with Meller-Herbert being offered a job as an emergency department doctor in Cambridge prompted their decision to leave. His final shift at a hospital in Sydney was on Sunday.
“In June the government responded that they would not grant the exemption for travel to us because we needed more evidence,” Meller-Herbert told Guardian Australia. “But I made it clear we were not returning, so it’s not like we are a risk of bringing the virus back to Australia. However, frustratingly, on the form you are required to list a return date, so I put one far in the future, in something like 2025.”
There are a number of reasons Australian citizens and permanent residents can be granted exemptions to travel, including if travel is part of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak including the provision of aid, and if travel is essential for the conduct of critical industries and business.
An Australian Border Force spokesman told Guardian Australia the department does not comment on individual cases.
“The department seeks to process exemption requests as quickly as possible,” he said.
“Due to high volumes, travel exemption requests are prioritised based on the intended date of travel and any compelling or compassionate circumstances for travel and where all the supporting evidence is provided.”
But on Friday, after the border force received questions from Guardian Australia, Meller-Herbert said he received an exemption. He said he had heard from others in similar situations since his story was made public.
“Some just turned up at the airport and made it out,” he said.
Meller-Herbert believed he fitted the exemptions categories and had asked for a review of the decision and submitted more information almost four weeks ago.
On Thursday he had still not received an answer with his flight just days away.
“I even phoned Sydney airport and got through to a border force staff member there and although she was very nice, she said there was no point showing up to our flight without our names on the exemption list,” he said before receiving the exemption.
Meller-Herbert believes the department was understaffed and overwhelmed, and that this was significantly impacting people’s lives.
“I feel overall we are lucky, none of our relatives back home are dying and ultimately we will be OK,” he said. “But others must be in much more desperate situations. However, it’s not a good look to not let National Health Service doctors go back to the UK to do their jobs.”