Australians stranded overseas and their families are already planning emotional reunions at the gates of Sydney airport in coming weeks, after hearing New South Wales will abandon the cap on arrivals and allow fully vaccinated travellers to enter without quarantining.
On Friday, the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, blindsided the prime minister, Scott Morrison, fellow state leaders and airline chiefs in announcing that both hotel and home quarantine requirements would be lifted for all fully vaccinated arrivals into his state from 1 November.
Related: All Australians able to travel overseas from November, says Morrison as he lifts travel ban
In the hours after Perrottet declared hotel and home quarantine “will be a thing of the past”, Morrison clarified that the commonwealth would limit incoming travel to just Australian citizens, residents and their families.
An airline source told Guardian Australia on Friday that carriers were working through the logistics of adding an additional 6,000 seats a week into their booking inventories – which airlines expected would be available to purchase within 48 hours.
This was achievable due to the number of seats flown empty into Sydney each week under the strict arrival caps in place since July 2020, resulting in more than 45,000 citizens being stranded overseas at any one time.
Tony Sammartino, after hearing the NSW announcement on Friday, was already planning a family reunion at Sydney airport in the next weeks.
He hasn’t seen his three-year-old daughter Maria Teresa, nor her mother and his partner, Maria Pena, since March 2020, when he was in the Philippines with their other daughter, Liliana.
Before the pandemic, the family of four split their lives between Melbourne and Subic, a coastal city north-west of Manila, spending roughly half a year in each parent’s home country.
As Sammartino’s partner is not an Australian citizen, she has not been eligible to enter Australia – which has banned all non-citizens since March 2020 – and her daughter, who had been with her mother when the border shut, has been too young to travel alone.
Sammartino, who has been caring for his other young daughter in Melbourne, has been unable to travel to the Philippines for fear of being bumped from his flight back – a common occurrence on flights to Australia throughout Covid.
“If there’s a flight into Sydney, we’ll take it … I’ll fly up to Sydney too, and I’m probably going to start bawling my eyes out with them there,” he said.
“I do feel empty though, this has been going on for more than a year, we’ve wasted so much of our lives waiting for it, so I’m a bit emotional,” he said.
Sammartino had been planning on joining legal action against Australia’s quarantine caps, believing the policy breached human rights. But on Friday he said he was delighted at the thought of seeing his daughter and partner in a matter of weeks.
Guardian Australia first reported on Sammartino’s situation in April, as Australian states began tightening their borders and arrival caps.
However the situation is less clear for those who have not received a TGA-recognised Covid-19 vaccine, as they will likely have to contend with the smaller cap of 210 unvaccinated passengers that NSW will allow to fly in each week, but force into 14 days of hotel quarantine.
Lara*, an Australian citizen, lives with her husband and two children in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where her husband’s family are from. The family travelled to Sydney frequently, in stints of up to a year, where they would visit Lara’s parents.
Related: The great Australian holiday gamble: can we Covid-proof our travel plans?
But due to restrictions they have not seen their family in two years.
Lara, who works as a teacher and did not want to be named, was encouraged by NSW’s quarantine relaxation, but vaccine availability in Sri Lanka has landed her in a predicament.
She and her husband have only been eligible for the Sinopharm vaccine – which the TGA have recommended against recognising as a vaccine.
On Friday, Lara was contemplating sending her children on a flight to Sydney by themselves to reunite with their grandmother for Christmas.
She was also considering claiming to local health authorities that she hasn’t been vaccinated at all, to request the Pfizer vaccine so she can qualify for quarantine-free travel.
“I’m now in the precarious situation where I have to do something basically illegal, which is pretend I haven’t been vaccinated at all,” she said.
“It’s frustrating because I was very hesitant to get the Sinopharm in the first place, but the WTO was saying the best vaccine is the first one available to you, and even the Australian health authorities said this.
“We had people dying around us, so it was a more immediate decision.”
Lara is hoping Australian embassies and consulates will offer TGA recognised vaccines to Australians in her position, so they are able to fly home.
Foreign expats living in Australia have also rejoiced at news that their parents – who have been barred from flying into the country since March 2020 – will now be considered immediate family and allowed to visit.
Originally from the UK, Jennie Edeleanu and her fiance, Steen Reed, moved to Newcastle in NSW so he could work as a health practitioner. They had delayed their wedding plans as a result of Australia’s border policy, and by June were considering leaving Australia permanently, Guardian Australia reported.
Edeleanu leads a group of 24,000 Australians with parents overseas, and had been lobbying the government to change the definition of immediate family.
She was thrilled at Friday’s news, but also called for greater clarity for the parents of temporary residents.
“This is a huge moment for so many of us that have been campaigning for over 18 months.
“Our community is going nuts with the news, the joy, elation and tears among the group is overwhelming,” Edeleanu said, adding: “This has been a black cloud hanging over so many families separated as a result of Australia’s border policies. We thank you for finally listening to our calls.”Internet Explorer Channel Network