A HUNTER family whose matriarch is stranded in the Philippines after a series of cancelled flights has appealed to the Australian government to temporarily lift its limit on overseas arrivals to help bring citizens home.
Natalie Alcova said her mother, Yolanda Velasquez, 83, had travelled from Rutherford to the Philippines at the start of February to spend a few months with her siblings, because she was concerned she may not be up to flying over for a planned family reunion next year.
She is booked on an August 14 Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight to Sydney, but has not yet received confirmation or an e-ticket. Mrs Alcova said she and her three siblings were hopeful, but not holding their breath.
"It's a nightmare," Mrs Alcova said.
"We're chasing our tails and really feel for her - just imagine her mental health.
"We're scratching our heads what else we can do. I'm on edge and not sleeping. We don't want to talk to each other for too long because we just end up crying."
Mrs Alcova said her mother and her mother's sister have been the only people since March staying in a family-owned property in Paete, Laguna - four hours drive to Manila - and members of her extended family have been dropping food and medicine outside.
Her mother's sister is scheduled to fly home to Chicago on August 5, which will leave Mrs Velasquez in the property on her own.
Time is of the essence. Reuters reported on August 1 the country had 98,232 cases and 2039 deaths.
It said 80 groups representing 80,000 doctors and a million nurses led by the Philippine College of Physicians said the country was losing the fight against COVID-19 and warned of a collapse of the healthcare system from soaring infections without tighter controls.
They have called for a two-week lockdown in Manila and provinces south of it until mid-August.
"The Philippines cases have not gone down and we've got a feeling they're going to lock down again," Mrs Alcova said.
"She's not going out anywhere, but if the lockdown is submitted who is going to be able to bring her food?"
Mrs Velasquez has two brothers and another sister living about an hour's drive from Paete, as well as relatives close to Manila, but Mrs Alcova said she and her siblings were concerned about their mum moving anywhere she will be exposed to more people.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson said Mrs Velasquez's family had reached out to her office, which had been providing them with support.
"I really feel for Yolanda and her family who just want to get her home," Ms Swanson said.
"Unfortunately Yolanda is one of thousands of Australians stranded overseas who have been trying for weeks if not months to get home.
"The Morrison government needs to do more to help Australians get home at this extraordinary time."
Greens Senator for NSW Dr Mehreen Faruqi said "many Australians have been stranded overseas in very difficult circumstances during the pandemic".
"The Greens are making inquiries on their behalf and continue to raise concerns about their plight with the government.
"The government should be doing everything it can to get people home safely."
Mrs Velasquez was originally scheduled to fly home on April 22, but the family tried to book her an earlier return.
She then went on a wait list for a March 25 Cebu Pacific flight, but it was cancelled.
The family found out a fortnight before her April 22 flight the airline was not likely to be flying again until after June.
In the meantime, the Australian Embassy in Manila announced on April 9 it was arranging dedicated commercial "user pays" PAL flights back to Australia, as well as associated sweeper flights across the archipelago.
PAL took registrations for April 18 flights to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and arranged access for those who missed out to dedicated April 28 flights to Sydney and Melbourne. It also allowed new registrations for an April 28 flight to Brisbane.
It helped arrange May 26 flights to Sydney and Melbourne but said on May 28 there were "no plans to facilitate additional flights".
The timing meant Mrs Velasquez's family missed out on these opportunities.
They contacted PAL to be put on the wait list for a June 26 flight, but were unsuccessful in securing a seat.
Mrs Velasquez was booked on a since-cancelled August 1 flight and put on a wait list for a July 10 flight, but it was cancelled too.
"In preparation for all the flights that she has been wait listed on and booked on she has had to get a medical certificate from the local doctor saying she is well and fit to travel," Mrs Alcova said.
"She also has to get transportation to take her from the province to Manila Airport and she has to get clearance for that travel... to show she has a valid reason to travel."
The Australian government introduced on July 5 a limit of 450 for the number of overseas arrivals landing in Sydney each day, with a maximum of 50 each flight. This dropped to 350 from July 20.
A Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications spokesperson said the limits at Sydney, Perth (525 per week) and Brisbane (500 per week) are "vital to maintaining the integrity of Australia's quarantine system, which is a critical intervention in managing the spread of COVID-19".
"The current arrangements are in place until 8 August and the need for any measures after 8 August is under consideration," the spokesperson said.
"We encourage travellers planning to return to Australia to contact their airline or travel agent as soon as possible for information on changes to their flight."
Mrs Velasquez's children paid a US$195 transfer fee to move her booking from August 1 to July 24 and she received a confirmation email and e-ticket.
She also received two emails asking if she wanted to bid to upgrade to business class. She did not.
The family spoke by video call the afternoon before the flight, relieved Mrs Velasquez would soon be on her way home. But five hours later she received an email from PAL saying "we will not be able to accommodate you".
"Unfortunately, we received an official advisory from the government of Australia dated July 18, 2020 which states that the passenger load on flight PR 211 will be limited to only a minimal passenger load, because of unexpected limitations in the quarantine processing facilities at Sydney International Airport," the email said.
"We sincerely apologize for this new development, but Philippine Airlines is duty-bound to comply with the limitations set by the health and airport authorities for each of the destinations we serve." The email said Mrs Velasquez could opt for a refund or to convert the ticket to a travel voucher.
"She was very upset and panicky," Mrs Alcova said. "You could see in her face something was wrong... we were all then in a panic."
The family called PAL and was told the flight had been cancelled, which they queried. "We were left that night feeling defeated, there wasn't anything we could do," Mrs Alcova said.
However it departed as scheduled and Mrs Alcova said PAL later told the family by phone that passengers on board were chosen "because of their ticket class". PAL has been contacted for comment, but did not respond by deadline.
PAL's upcoming flight schedule has two flights from Manila to Sydney, on August 14 and 28.
Mrs Velasquez is booked on the August 14 flight but has not yet received confirmation or an e-ticket.
Her family has urged PAL that passengers bumped off the July 24 flight should receive priority.
Mrs Alcova said PAL told her it can only take 32 passengers on each flight.
She said she understood there were at least 180 Australians still stuck in the Philippines and some have been told to call the Australian Embassy to register their interest in being on the flight.
The embassy has been advising citizens to contact their airline or travel provider.
"The only way we can get her on that August 14 flight is if the Australian government says 'Okay, we're just going to fill PAL with all Australian citizens and allow those people to come in on that flight'," Mrs Alcova said.
"They did it in April and May, why can't they do it again?
"If the restriction is the same as before it basically means if there's 13 inbound flights on that day they can only have 30 passengers each. That's what we're going up against."
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the federal government "continues to explore options to support Australians' access to flights on a commercial basis".
"We encourage all Australians seeking to return home to remain in regular contact with their airlines or travel agents to confirm their arrangements and to subscribe to our travel advice at smarttraveller.gov.au," the spokesperson said.
"The Australian Embassy in Manila is in close contact with those Australians remaining in the Philippines, providing consular assistance as required, as well as travel information and advice."
Mrs Alcova said the family had investigated other options but felt they posed too much risk, such as becoming stranded or ill in a third country.
These include travelling via either Hong Kong or Doha to Sydney.