In this month’s Expat Story Of The Month, we’re sharing Sam Colden’s story when she flew back to England to bury her mum in the midst of the pandemic. While she managed to get back just before the Australian government capped flights in half in July, she is sharing how she got through quarantine in Sydney alone.
I know it’s a scary thought of losing loved ones who are far away right now, but we’re so grateful to Sam for being open and for sharing her experience during an incredibly difficult time.
We followed her quarantine journey via her Instagram page and we just knew we had to share her story. Her productivity of walking over 10,000 steps a day to making delicious meals from scratch using a microwave had us bowled over with her positivity and courage. I for one, have no idea how she managed to get through quarantine alone after losing her mum. And so, we wanted to share her story with you.
Sam is a well-known blogger under the name, The Annoyed Thyroid. As a cancer survivor, she shares life post-cancer as well as incredible cooking and baking recipes which has brought her a loyal following. Make sure you follow her blog, The Annoyed Thyroid and her Instagram @theannoyedthyroid here.
And, if you’re a dog lover, follow her pooch’s page @teddyroothecavapoo. If she hadn’t put me in contact with a friend’s dog breeder, we wouldn’t have our Tomarlie right now. This is something we will be forever grateful to Sam for.
Table of Contents
How I Ended Up Moving To Australia
My husband, David and I met online in 2004 and I like to think we were pioneers of online dating! David was from Newcastle, UK originally but we were both working in London. I already had Permanent Residency in Australia but was back in the UK working as a primary school teacher when we met.
We got married in 2007 and were on an around the world honeymoon when David had an epiphany in Perth and said he wanted to move to Australia. By then, my PR visa was running out but while we were in Australia we went to the immigration office and it turned out that as we were married, I could sponsor him on a spousal visa.
Not one to mess around, we got home from our honeymoon, applied for the visa, sold our flat in London and eight months later were beginning our new life Down Under.
David is in IT and I’d just got my TEFL qualification to teach English to international students. We decided to move to Sydney because we had friends and family there and we were both lucky to secure jobs before we arrived. The only place we really knew in Sydney was Bondi, where demand for property was high and the rent was expensive, or the Lower North Shore. We found a great flat in St Leonards on the Lower North Shore and we’ve been in the area ever since.
How I Got Permenant Residency In Australia
I got my Permanent Residency based on my skills as a primary teacher way back in 2003. I couldn’t face doing the paperwork myself so I splashed out and got an immigration agent to handle everything.
In the end, we entered Australia a couple of months before my PR was due to expire which was pretty lucky as immigration said had the visa lapsed, they would not have given me another one!
Although David had the skills to apply as a skilled migrant, it was cheaper, quicker and easier to sponsor him on a spousal visa. He had a temporary visa for a couple of years before he could transfer to Permanent Residency. We became Australian citizens in 2015.
Going Back To England Every 6-12 Months
My mum was always so supportive of our move because she wanted us to be happy although she’d lived in South Africa, the US and France herself so she knew what it was like to have itchy feet!
Prior to the pandemic, I was able to go home every 6-12 months so the distance was never an issue. However, since the border closed in March 2020, it’s been really tough being so far away.
David’s folks have also been really supportive and have visited us a few times. I think it’s a bit different and easier for them as David’s sister and niece live nearby, whereas my mum is a single parent and I’m an only child.
We miss our friends terribly but most of our closest friends have visited us at least once or twice and we always make an effort to catch up when we’re in the UK. We’re super grateful for technology that makes the world seem so much smaller.
Returning To England During Covid
My mum had been quite poorly and her health had really deteriorated since COVID began. I had a lot of anxiety about what would happen if she died when the borders were closed. I tried to prepare for it as much as I could mentally – I was seeing a psychologist. I had also started to prepare documents for an exemption to leave Australia.
When my worst fears came true and my mum passed away, I had no choice but to go back to the UK because it was really important that I could fulfil her last wishes and my duties as sole executor of her will. We were extremely close and it broke my heart that I wasn’t with her when she passed.
Even though I had a lot of documents ready to go for my exemption, I still needed a death certificate/confirmation of the death from the UK. Currently, the only way to get an exemption to leave Australia on compassionate and compelling grounds is to submit a Statutory Declaration saying you will stay out of Australia for three months or more but this isn’t the case if there’s death or a terminal diagnosis.
Even though my application was thorough, it still took five long days to be approved and only then after writing a heartfelt letter to my local MP begging him to intervene on my behalf and expedite the process.
I Used A Travel Agent To Get Back To England
I had been lurking in a number of expat/hotel quarantine Facebook groups for months and knew the best way to get to the UK and back was with an agent. We usually plan our own travel but with seats on flights to Australia so scarce, I knew I’d have to ask for help from an expert.
Brian Conway from Bonaventure Travel was amazing as I was on a very tight time frame and was desperate to be back in Australia within three weeks. He found me flights on Singapore Airlines! Getting to the UK was easy, but on the return flight, I got the last seat and had to fly Business Class from London to Singapore and First Class from Singapore to Sydney.
It was eye-wateringly expensive but getting back home to Sydney for me was priceless. Singapore Airlines were amazing and have the reputation of being the most reliable airline flying to Sydney right now because they only book to the caps except of course when the Australian government change the rules for caps at the drop of a hat.
The quarantine situation in the UK was always changing but by the time I arrived, all I had to do, was take an at-home Day 2 test. I had done a lot of research about hotel quarantine via Facebook groups and in many ways, knew that it would be the hardest part of my journey.
My Experience Flying Back To England
Flying from Sydney Airport was almost spooky, it was absolutely deserted and I struggled even to find somewhere to buy a glass of wine (it was medicinal!). Arriving at Heathrow was easy and it wasn’t deserted but it was much quieter than usual.
I entered on my UK passport and the border control officer didn’t even want to check my Passenger Locator Form, just confirmed that I’d filled it out. It was the quickest I’ve ever gotten out of Heathrow!
My friend picked me up and drove me up to my mum’s place in Lincoln, about a three-hour drive away. There were no restrictions other than masks had to be worn inside. Having come from Sydney where restrictions had been lifted for quite some time, this felt a bit weird.
I’d arranged for my Day 2 test to be sent to my mum’s and once I’d completed the test, I posted it back to the lab in one of the designated priority postboxes. I got the results a day or two later. Of course, it was negative! That was the first of many COVID tests that I’d be taking over the next month.
Flying Back To Australia
Prior to departure, I had to fill out an Australian Travel Declaration (a document that determines whether or not you need to quarantine) and get another COVID test within 72 hours of departure.
As I didn’t want to go into Central London, I had to do this in Peterborough on the way down South and it cost £185 for the same day test. When I got there I had to swab myself! I arrived at Heathrow extra early and found the airport to be really quite busy, way busier than Sydney.
The Singapore Airlines lounge was closed but we could use the Premium Plaza Lounge which was a popular choice with travellers. The flight to Singapore wasn’t busy and there were only about six people in the Business Class cabin.
When we arrived at Changi Airport, we were met by airport staff in full PPE, given bracelets and escorted single file through the airport to a THA (Transit Holding Area) to wait for our next flight. This THA was basically a disused airport gate and we were not permitted to leave the area – there were toilets, charging stations and a vending machine. I had an eight-hour wait so it wasn’t ideal!
When my flight to Sydney was called, we were escorted again by airport staff to the gate, had our names checked off a list and were then able to proceed to security. There couldn’t have been more than 30 people on the flight, although all 4 seats in First Class were occupied.
Finding Out Which Sydney Quarantine Hotel I Was Going To
Flying Business and First Class was such a treat, I’ve only ever flown economy but as we came in to land at Sydney I began to get very anxious about where I was going to end up in hotel quarantine.
I’d had a really busy two weeks organising my mum’s cremation, burying her ashes and sorting out her affairs and I’d had friends by my side every step of the way. I was dreading being trapped in a small, airless room on my own and just wanted to get home and hug my husband and my dog.
We were met in Sydney by nurses in PPE and led through the back corridors to the area just before passport control where we were triaged by some really lovely nurses. Our temperature was taken, we were asked if we had symptoms and then they explained we were going to have to quarantine.
I had a letter from my psychologist outlining my mental health issues and I also take some prescription meds for underlying health issues. The nurse asked me to take a seat so that I could speak to the doctor. There were two other passengers from my flight also waiting to see him. After having a chat about my situation and my health, the doctor said that the other two passengers and I would be quarantined in a Health Hotel. This is different from other quarantine hotels because rather than being run by NSW Police, it’s run by NSW Health.
An area next to the luggage carousel had been fashioned into a nurse’s station and we waited there until we had our first COVID test. Then we collected our bags, cleared customs and went out the back of the airport where we were directed to a minibus but we were only allowed to sit at the back, nowhere near the driver! Army personnel were friendly and loaded our bags onto a trailer. A nurse hopped on to accompany us and took us to our accommodation.
Health Hotel Experience
Upon arrival at the health hotel, we had to wait on the bus until a nurse came and called our name. The nurse escorted me to my room which was actually a really lovely one-bedroom apartment. It had a large living/dining area, desk, bedroom, bathroom, laundry, kitchen and best of all an opening window and a balcony.
Staying here was like winning the quarantine lottery because sadly standards in hotel quarantine vary wildly. I’ve heard stories of people staying in rooms that don’t even have a window!
The kitchen had crockery, a full-size fridge, a microwave and a dishwasher. There was a stove too but it was disconnected, I’m guessing this is because they didn’t want people cooking and setting the fire alarm off!
Staff were lovely and you could ring down with requests for more amenities. The hotel was run more like a hospital so every floor had its own bank of nurses and you could contact them any time of the day or night. They also did rounds every morning and afternoon.
In the morning they would check pulse and blood pressure and check to see if you had any COVID symptoms. In the afternoon they would just see how you were and check to see if you had any symptoms. COVID tests were on Day eight and Day 12.
I never crossed the threshold of my room once I entered and had to wear a mask at all times, I kept a mask hanging on the door handle so I didn’t forget.
How I Made My Own Meals In A Sydney Quarantine Hotel
As the hotel were once serviced apartments, there was no in house kitchen so all food was outsourced. I can only describe it as bad aeroplane food.
Breakfast was highly processed – weetbix, tinned fruit, milk and lunch was a sandwich with veggie crisps, biscuit and nuts. Dinner was literally like an economy class meal on a plane, delivered along with breakfast for the next morning. Dinner was partly frozen so you could heat it at your leisure. Because all of the food was highly processed and not healthy, I decided to make my own.
Supermarket deliveries were allowed, so I got on to that straight away and my husband kindly dropped off some care packages to top up my supplies. Care packages and deliveries (even restaurant delivery) could be dropped off downstairs and were then passed to reception who would ring and check that they had the right person and the right room and let you know a delivery was coming. One of the team would then deliver the item to your door. They would knock, I would open the door. Then they’d ask me to close the door, leave the item outside and then I would open the door and bring the item/s inside.
My guilty pleasure in quarantine was instant noodles but when I wasn’t eating those, I had some staple microwave meals. My favourite was Stuffed Pesto Peppers, followed by the super versatile Shakshuka Eggs and one of my old favourites from my blog, Tuna Stuffed Sweet Potatoes. I also had a crack at making pasta dishes and became quite a whizz at scrambled eggs in the microwave!
Getting Into A Routine To Speed Up 14 Days In Quarantine In Sydney
Routine is everything in hotel quarantine! In the morning, I would have breakfast, shower and faff around before the nurses came on their rounds – this would vary anytime from 9.30-10.30.
After that I would do some exercise, I found a combo of HIIT routines and walking workouts that could take me until lunchtime to help me reach at least 10,000 steps a day. After lunch, I’d call friends, have another shower, do some self-care (a facial, wash hair, paint nails), blog, do a puzzle etc.
At 5 o’clock I’d kick back with a drink and start preparing dinner.
In the latter part of my stay, I discovered the Virtual Happy Hour Group which was so much fun and a way to connect with other “detainees” all over Australia.
I was so quarantine-curious to see their accommodation and hear their stories. Of course, I can’t tell you about it though because what happens in Virtual Happy Hour stays in Virtual Happy Hour!
Receiving Care Packages From Friends
Friends dropped off some really lovely care packages for me. One sent flowers and the ingredients to make a lovely fresh salad, someone sent a box of beautiful macarons, homemade dinner and at one point I received a lovely box of marshmallows and hot chocolate!
These surprise packages were a real pick me up as were the people who called to check in for a chat. Let’s not forget the friend who brought my dog, so I could see him from the balcony!
I think it’s outrageous that the quarantine experience varies so drastically depending on the hotel. I really think there should be a consistent gold standard for everyone, regardless of whether they are quarantining alone, with a partner or with children.
I was so lucky to have such a great space, access to fresh air, human contact with the nurses and the ability to be self-sufficient with (limited) cooking, cleaning and washing facilities.
It felt like a micro version of real-life and made normalised a very strange experience. I think it would have been a very different story had I been in a small room with no access to cooking or washing facilities and no access to fresh air.
Differences Between Quaranting In England And Australia
You can’t even begin to compare quarantine in Australia with the system in the UK. When I arrived in the UK, I did not have to quarantine. I met my friend straight away and proceeded to my mum’s without any special measures. I didn’t even have to isolate while I was waiting for my Day 2 test results.
In Sydney, I had to wait two weeks before I could see my husband and my dog and have a real-life hug, something that to be honest, I really needed after what I’d been through.
In the end, quarantine was much better than I expected but that’s largely due to the accommodation and the great support of my friends and my husband. I was physically alone but emotionally I had a whole team of great people cheering me on.
What I Learnt About Quarantining In Sydney
Quarantine is a good time to find out what you love to do and do more of it. I had my kindle fully loaded, a colouring book, a pack of face masks, a manicure kit, a stack of series to watch on Netflix and I arranged for my husband to drop off a few puzzles.
In the end, I watched hardly any telly, did hardly any blogging and didn’t read a single word! I spent most of my time working out, doing puzzles, playing house and having virtual catch-ups with friends and family.
I also made sure I had a few essentials. I had a sharp knife and a pair of scissors in my checked luggage. As it turned out, I had a set of knives in the apartment but this is one item that can’t be brought in or sent in a care package in case you self harm! My only regret was not bringing a small coffee machine/plunger although we rectified this later in a care package.
For me, the most stressful part was not knowing where I’d end up and how it would turn out. That said, I’d mentally prepared myself and put a positive spin on it – thinking of the two weeks as a time to rest and recharge without any of my everyday life responsibilities.
How I Feel About The Reduced Caps For Flying Into Australia
I am actually quite distraught about the reduction in caps – it’s so cruel and draconian. Hotel quarantine is difficult enough but cutting the caps is just adding so much emotional, financial and physical hardship to Australians and expats both here and abroad. The sad truth is that if my mum died now and I went back to the UK, I would not be able to get back into the country for months (if I’m lucky).
I’m disappointed that my government treats its citizens that way and even more disappointed that so many Australians agree with them. The stories of people trying to get out of and back to Australia, especially for compassionate reasons are just heartbreaking.
A big thank you to Sam for sharing her honest experience in quarantine in Sydney. We cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like for her to go through this on top of losing her mum.
Each month we share an emigration expat story. If you would like to share yours, fill out our Expat Story form to be considered for next month’s Expat Story Of The Month.