Shocked passengers boarding a Sydney-bound flight were given just 10 minutes to decide whether to stay on the aircraft and face 14 days of self-isolation in Australia, or get off and be stranded in the United States.
The dramatic announcement at San Francisco International Airport came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed mandatory self-isolation rules for international travellers.
But returning Australians have revealed that despite the government’s strong response to the coronavirus crisis, in planes and at airports when they touched down they were not tested or given masks.
“The plane had been filled up with everyone when it was announced what had happened, that 14 days of isolation would apply to all of us,” passenger Zoë White, an Australian-American dual citizen, told The New Daily.
“They said, ‘If anyone changes their mind about the flight, you can leave in the next 10 minutes’.
“People were getting off and crying. You could tell whatever their plans were had been completely upended.”
Ms White, a cinematographer, was filming a new Netflix series in Israel with her partner Michael when shooting was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“We’d been shooting since September and we only had about three weeks to go when Israel announced it was banning gatherings of over 100 people,” she said.
“A day or two later Netflix had shut down all of its productions around the world.”
Ms White usually lives in New York with Michael, but the pair diverted their flights to Australia.
“I’d rather be home with my mum in sunny Sydney, feeling close to my family,” she said.
During their flights from Tel Aviv to San Francisco to Sydney, the couple was not given any protective gear like face masks, nor did they have their temperatures screened at the airports.
“As we left the plane in Sydney we were given a piece of paper with questions about where you’ve been,” Ms White said.
“The first question was: Are you aware you need to self-isolate for 14 days?
“All the staff were wearing masks around the airport, and as they took our e-tickets they asked, ‘Are you OK? Do you feel sick? Have you been around any at-risk people?’”
Anyone who had come from China or other high-risk countries had to have their temperatures screened at Sydney Airport, she said.
Although there was no way Ms White could make it back to Australia in time to avoid the new self-isolation period, other travellers were lucky to just land on home soil before the deadline.
Brett Diedrich and partner Johannes Wilson run a luxury travel and lifestyle company together in Singapore, but have set up a home in Bali.
When the pair heard about the new rules, they wasted no time packing up to head home to Western Australia.
“We booked our flights during the Prime Minister’s speech,” Mr Diedrich told The New Daily.
“We knew it was coming and we didn’t question it. We thought, ‘OK let’s book our flights and get out of here’.
“We just put things in our bags and made a loose plan.
“We locked up and left. We don’t know when we’re going back … it’s that uncertainty and inability to plan that is the biggest problem for us.”
Mr Diedrich and Mr Wilson rushed to Denpasar International Airport in Bali and jumped on the next flight to Perth.
They landed at 7.30pm, Perth time – three hours behind AEST time.
“People were so confused, was it a midnight cut-off in each time zone? Or just in the east coast?” Mr Diedrich said.
“When we landed there was no temperature screening, and we weren’t given masks.
“There was just the standard immigration procedures where they ask you questions like, ‘Have you been to China in the last 14 days?'”
Mr Diedrich said when he was in Singapore three weeks ago, he was temperature screened at least three times a day and was told to use a tracking app to tell the government where he was moving around the city.
“In Singapore, people aren’t alarmed because they know everything is being managed,” he said.
“It’s a bit strange that we didn’t see that degree of control in Australia.”
The pair said they felt healthy, but will practise social distancing as a precaution.