20 Mar 2020

Covid-19: 'Flights are being cancelled left, right and centre' - NZers struggle to get home

7:43 pm on 20 March 2020

New Zealanders stuck overseas are paying thousands of dollars to get back home, and in many cases have no idea if they will be allowed to board - or whether more flights will be cancelled due to Covid-19, trapping them in transit limbo.

New Zealanders Matthew Taylor and Amelia Nisbet stuck in Guatemala. Covid-19 coronavirus

Matthew Taylor and Amelia Nisbet worry of not being able to leave Guatemala sooner. Photo: Supplied / Matthew Taylor

Some are pinning their hopes on government mercy flights - but with up to 110,000 New Zealand citizens and residents currently overseas, some face a long wait.

An idyllic seaside village in Guatemala has become a prison for Matthew Taylor and Amelia Nisbet, with the whole country in complete lockdown for two weeks.

Having spent the last three years in London, the Christchurch couple, who are both 27, were taking the scenic route home through Central America when the pandemic struck.

The village where the hostel they are working at was suddenly cordoned off.

"Yeah, they cut off the water supply to the little village, so we had to drive for ages to pick up water.

"Then last night the police came in with big guns and they wanted to check everyone's temperature. I don't know [why], I guess in case something goes wrong. And they want to put some intimidation out there to make sure people conform."

A water truck was allowed into the village today - after the driver had his temperature checked - but Watson was worried they were going to be stuck there for a while.

He did not see any point in trying to book flights because there are no flights available.

"I was speaking to a travel agent who reckons it's going for longer and it's better just to sit tight.

"Literally nothing, our worst fear is if we try to leave here and go to Guatemala City and then boom, they shut this country for another two weeks and then we're really up shit creek."

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

New Zealanders Mark Watson and Hana Black stuck in Patagonia. Covid-19 coronavirus

Mark Watson and Hana Black are stuck in a remote part of Patagonia without road access. Photo: Supplied

Mark Watson and Hana Black, who are also from Christchurch, have been away from home for nearly four years on an epic cycling journey from Alaska to Chile.

They have a flight booked to the capital Santiago on Friday and then intended to fly to Auckland via Buenos Aires.

However, with Air New Zealand now suspending all services from Argentina for 90 days, Watson said they were "effectively stuck" with other flights being cancelled and airlines pulling out.

"And the other issue for us is the prices are insane.

"We've seen prices anywhere from $US5000 to $US14,000 ($NZ8600 to $NZ24,300) each for a flight out via Latam Airlines."

The couple is in a remote part of Patagonia without road access.

Watson has kidney problems and high blood pressure and fears being unable to access medical services if the lockdown continues.

"There is going to be an issue here with food and fuel supply as well as medicine."

He was frustrated by the lack of official information from New Zealand consular staff.

"Something that we're really finding difficult is the lack of information. We're not hearing a whole lot from the consulate, really just that we should be putting pressure on the airlines to find out what's going on.

"But despite Air New Zealand cancelling our flight, they haven't contacted us.

"The only thing we can find out from their app is they are 'processing a change' - that's literally what it says - but no information about how that might manifest."

New Zealander Stacey Knott stuck in Ghana. Covid-19 coronavirus

Stacey Knott isn't sure whether to leave or continue staying in Ghana. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand journalist Stacey Knott, who has been living in Ghana for four and a half years with her husband John, said the country only had a handful of cases but had closed the borders to foreigners, shut down schools and universities and banned public gatherings.

"I'm very 50/50 at the moment whether I should stay here or go," she said.

"If I go back to New Zealand, you have to make that decision quite quickly because flights are being cancelled left, right and centre.

"I know someone who tried to leave Ghana to go back to New Zealand but the flights were cancelled, so they're trying again tomorrow."

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said publicly that partners and dependents of citizens would be allowed to come to New Zealand, Knott said she had been unable to get official confirmation.

"So I've been speaking with an immigration lawyer, and trying to figure out does that mean he would need a visa?

"Because my partner has never come to New Zealand, we've been here the whole time - well, we used to live in the UK as well.

"I'm pretty sure you would still need a visa, so is that going to be easier under these circumstances?"

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson.

Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

According to Statistics New Zealand, between 100,000 and 110,000 New Zealand residents were travelling overseas as of mid-March.

Of these, about two-thirds are New Zealand citizens, with the rest permanent residents or on work and student visas.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said talks were underway with Air New Zealand and other airlines about repatriation flights.

"Clearly there's a need at the moment around repatriation.

"Most New Zealanders are getting on flights and coming home. There are some people who may have some difficulty with that, that's the work that MFAT is doing now."

Robertson said it was the largest consular exercise ever undertaken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)

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