Australians stranded in the United Kingdom on expiring visas have won a last-minute reprieve after the UK government extended the deadline to leave the country by one month.
Foreign citizens with expiring UK visas were supposed to leave the country by Friday, July 31. But some expats claimed heading home was not feasible before then because Australia's decision to cap the number of international arrivals has driven up airfares.
On Wednesday night the UK Home Office announced visa holders would now have until August 31 to depart. The UK government had previously extended expiring visas until May 31 and then again until July 31 as the coronavirus pandemic caused havoc for travellers.
The latest reprieve comes as a major relief to Australians who had struggled to return home due to a lack of available flights.
Australian citizen Dominique Mills, who works on a farm in the Scottish Highlands, says she is "incredibly relieved" at the decision after being filled with "pure anxiety, fear [and] uncertainty" about her fate beyond Friday.
"It is such an immense weight off my shoulders knowing I have more time to get answers from the Home Office regarding my ongoing visa struggles without fear of becoming an overstayer," she said.
Ms Mills has applied for a sponsored visa to remain in the UK but the process has been delayed due to COVID-19 and she was unsure whether her existing youth visa would be extended in the meantime. She has had two flights home to Australia cancelled.
"I will definitely sleep better at night knowing I may still have a chance at pursuing the life of my dreams here in Scotland," Ms Mills said.
"Whilst it was the right decision, I feel thousands of people could have been saved undue panic if the UK had announced its policy sooner."
Australian couple Kate Livingstone and her partner Sam Phipps have been working in the UK for two years. They originally planned to leave the UK last week, travel around Europe and return to Australia in August.
When that became untenable the couple booked flights home for July 25. But Qatar Airways pushed their flight back two weeks. That departure is not guaranteed and remaining until then means overstaying their visa.
Ms Livingstone was similarly thrilled about the visa extension. "I'm very happy and relieved with the news, it's a huge weight off our shoulders. It's not ideal that it was so last minute but we understand these are difficult times. Now we just have to hope we can get on our flight."
With Australia capping international arrival numbers, airlines have been forced to limit the number of passengers they carry. This has driven up prices as airlines try to cover their costs. Qatar Airways only has business class fares for about $10,000 until August 9 when the next economy seats are available.
"People have been told, 'Someone's bought a business class ticket so you've been pushed to the next flight,'" Ms Livingstone said. "A friend was saying it's like the Titanic when the first class cabin gets on the boats and everyone else is in the water."
Sydney Airport is only accepting 350 international passengers a week, with a cap of 50 people on a single flight. Melbourne Airport is not accepting international arrivals until at least August 8.
"If the caps aren't going to change sometime soon the Australian government has to talk to the UK and other governments to make sure their citizens have protections and security to stay where they are legally," Ms Livingstone said.
"Everyone just feels like they're not really advocating on our behalf - it just feels like they're saying the same [thing]: 'You could've come home in March.'"
A Department of Infrastructure spokesperson said airfares are a commercial decision for airlines but acknowledged the cap on passenger arrivals "may create some concerns and inconvenience for Australians still seeking to return home".
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said the government "is continuing to explore options to support Australians seeking to return home to access flights on a commercial basis".
Ms Livingstone said living overseas with work and financial commitments meant it wasn't practical to return home sooner. "There is a bit of a lack of empathy and understanding – not everyone has the same situation," she said.
Aaron Smith is another Australian whose visa was due to expire on Friday. "Delaying the decision has proved to be highly stressful and we could be violating our visa obligations [by overstaying]."
Mr Smith said he didn't come home earlier because he had work commitments and a rental lease.
"We have [now] lost our jobs here and [are] surviving on our savings. It has been a struggle mentally and financially."
Ben Kehoe runs the Aussies in London Facebook group with 13,000 members and says lately he's seen daily posts from people scrambling to get home and having flights cancelled.
He thinks the number of people trying to return is "fairly high" and says several friends have already gone home.
"Living in London is expensive and savings are just a dream for most people, so when businesses started closing down and people were being furloughed it was basically a choice between the uncertainty that was trying to see things out in the UK versus the security of going home."