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Australia left thousands of citizens stranded abroad in the pandemic. But it let the French rugby team in.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/8/2021 Rachel Pannett
a group of people playing football on a field: France's Gabin Villiere dives in to score during the first of three rugby games between Australia and France in Brisbane on Wednesday. © Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images France's Gabin Villiere dives in to score during the first of three rugby games between Australia and France in Brisbane on Wednesday.

SYDNEY — Sam Guthrie missed his brother’s wedding and his grandmother’s funeral, and couldn’t be around to help when his father was in the hospital being treated for an infection after hip surgery.

His voice trembles down the phone from Belfast as he reflects on how far he feels from home. It’s not the distance, he says, some 11,000 miles, but the unease of not knowing when he’ll get back to Australia.

“I didn’t expect I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. I don’t think there’s much chance of getting home in 2022 now,” said Guthrie, 30, who is from Blayney, west of Sydney, and has lived in Northern Ireland since 2019.

Well over a year into the pandemic, Australia is officially closed to everyone but citizens, residents and their immediate family. With just a few thousand a week allowed to enter, legions of Australians are stranded abroad, unable to get on scarce and eye-wateringly expensive flights that are running near-empty because of the arrival caps. The government last week promised to increase repatriation flights.

But there are ways around the border blockade, as those who are good at swinging a racket, wielding a bat or kicking a ball have found.

‘We’re prisoners’: Australia locks out thousands more citizens as virus slip-ups mount

On Wednesday, the French rugby team played Australia’s national team, the Wallabies, in Brisbane, after entering the country last month on a charter flight under a deal arranged with the Australian government and state officials in New South Wales.

The team entered a private quarantine facility in Sydney for 14 days, paid for by Rugby Australia, according to a person familiar with the arrangements. The players then flew to Brisbane on Tuesday night ahead of the game, according to a post on the team’s website, in which the hosts eked out a narrow win.

“I don’t begrudge the fact that a sports team can come in. I begrudge the ease with which they get to do it, compared to the ordinary citizen,” said Guthrie, who has given up trying to get home to visit and wonders if he will ever return permanently to a country he feels “has failed me and other abandoned Australians.”

a group of people watching a football ball on a field: Tate McDermott of Australia kicks during the game against France in Brisbane on Wednesday. © Dave Hunt/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Tate McDermott of Australia kicks during the game against France in Brisbane on Wednesday.

Officials defended the exemptions, along with the country’s strict covid-19 rules, which politicians have credited for keeping virus cases to about 30,000, with 910 deaths.

“Stimulating the Australian economy is an important part of post covid-19 recovery,” a spokesman for the Australian Border Force said in response to emailed questions. “Inwards travel exemption applications for economic benefit and applications for compassionate reasons are assessed against separate criteria and should not be compared.”

A New South Wales health official said the French team entered Australia under a quarantine plan approved by the state government which did not affect the number of returning Australians who could enter the state. The French Rugby Federation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other overseas sports stars permitted to enter Australia have included the Indian cricket team and tennis players contesting the Australian Open. But the Australian Grand Prix has been canceled.

Australians aren’t yet able to quarantine at home, and must isolate for two weeks in a hotel, even if fully vaccinated. Some have been left homeless or in financial difficulty overseas, having given up housing in anticipation of flights that were subsequently axed.

Kate Guest was distraught that she was unable to return from the U.K. after her mom died suddenly.

“I have tried, but I can’t get there to hold her hand one last time, or go to the funeral,” Guest wrote on Twitter this week. “This is what border closures and arrivals caps really mean. I am heartbroken.”

Reached by The Washington Post, Guest said she had since been contacted by the Australian High Commission in London, which was “going above and beyond to get me home.”

a person wearing a suit and tie: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra on July 2. © Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra on July 2.

Yet the prospects for many stranded Australians are getting worse, not better. Airlines warned of fresh disruption after Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under pressure from state leaders facing new virus outbreaks, agreed to halve the weekly arrival intake starting July 14.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, the premier of Queensland state, where Wednesday’s rugby game took place, had championed the push to make it harder to enter Australia; last month, she called for a “massive reduction" in arrivals. Interstate travel restrictions have also been reimposed while Sydney remains in lockdown amid an outbreak of the delta variant.

But patience is wearing thin, especially as the United States and Europe are moving beyond restrictions and travel curbs and relying on vaccinations to limit the virus’s spread. Fewer than 8 percent of Australians are fully vaccinated.

New Zealand rugby stars resist Silicon Valley investor’s bid for All Blacks stake

“The problem lies with the leaders who have politicized a human tragedy, prioritizing an unsustainable border closure while neglecting vaccinations to create a false sense of security for Australians,” Susan Sams, who flew in recently from Hong Kong, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. Sams had to fight authorities for a brief visit to see her dying mother, in protective gear, despite being fully vaccinated and testing negative six times.

Josh Reyes, a Canadian tech worker who made it into the country with his Australian partner in June last year, before the arrival caps, said the official response lately is “devoid of reality.”

“While other countries are learning to live with the virus and moving to remove quarantine altogether, our prime minister puts on a populist charade portraying the U.K. as a hellscape,” he said. “Yet we can see our friends going on European holidays in our Instagram feeds and full crowds at Wimbledon and the Euros.”

Read more:

‘We’re prisoners’: Australia locks out thousands more citizens as virus slip-ups mount

Sydney locks down parts of city in race against outbreak of delta variant

New Zealand rugby stars resist Silicon Valley investor’s bid for All Blacks stake

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