How COVID-19 has torn apart one Blue Mountains couple

When Jeremy Sadler said goodbye to his wife in July before she flew to the United Kingdom to support her seriously ill mother, he never imagined they would still be apart three months later.

But the Springwood resident is now facing the prospect of spending Christmas away from his wife of 34 years as she has joined 27,000 Australian citizens stranded overseas by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is a horrible situation - and we're powerless," said Mr Sadler.

Pam Sadler flew to England in July after gaining special exemption to visit her 73-year-old mother who was facing a possible leg amputation due to complications with blood cancer.

While that crisis has thankfully passed, and her mother's health has stabilised, Mrs Sadler has been unable to return to Australia due to a controversial cap on international arrivals.

Even an agreement between the federal and state governments last week to increase the cap has not given the couple any more certainty.

Mrs Sadler was due to return home last week but her September 17 British Airways flight was cancelled one week before it was due to take off. It was the third time she has dealt with a last-minute flight cancellation.

"The next earliest flight my airline could offer me is for December 15 but I have little confidence that it will go ahead, and even if it does, I will be spending Christmas by myself in quarantine," she told the Gazette from her temporary home in Yorkshire.

Scouring for other flights has proved fruitless with potential alternative airlines leading to dead ends or flights being exorbitantly priced.

The uncertainty is taking a heavy toll.

"Jeremy and I have been together for 40 years. The longest we have been apart is six weeks, and that was 22 years ago. We have now exceeded that," said Mrs Sadler. "He is my strength and my support. I worry that either one of us could contract COVID-19 and may never see each other again."

The limbo has also meant Mrs Sadler is not earning an income from the breastfeeding consulting business she started this February - a situation she describes as "extremely frustrating".

"Before I left Australia, I had covered my costs and was starting to make a small income (from the business). Now I am back to square one," she said.

The couple has been shocked by the lack of legal rights Australian citizens have in situations like this. Instead, they are at the mercy of the federal and state governments coming to a political agreement.

"It's really bad for the country. It's very, very divisive. It's pulling people apart," said Mr Sadler.

The management consultant has been left with no choice but to simply look forward to the daily Zoom calls he has with his wife - while she lives out of a suitcase, sleeping on a sofa in her parents' one-bedroom bungalow.

"Even though we can see each other [via Zoom] it's very different to having her here - in her home. She's not living. She's on hold," he said.

Federal Member for Macquarie Susan Templeman has been in contact with the Sadlers, describing ongoing family separations caused by COVID as "just so distressing and I think unnecessary for many people".

"NSW agreed to increase the weekly cap on people allowed to enter Australia following the National Cabinet meeting on Friday, but even with that increase, people are being bumped by airlines from their flights," she said.

"Last week DFAT stated that the number of Australians wanting to return home was 27,000, while the airlines estimated there were up to 30,000 Australians seeking flights in the UK alone."

Ms Templeman said the prime minister "could be doing more for those currently stranded overseas", including the option of using the RAAF VIP fleet.

Mrs Sadler said her story is just one of thousands being experienced by families around Australia.

"I know that I am not the worst off and there are many people in far more vulnerable positions who deserve to get home," she said.

"But if it's affecting me this much then it must be affecting them, and Australia as a country, more. The economic, social and mental cost of 27,000 people going through what I am - and worse - must be huge."