New variant scuppers retired Irish nurse’s plans to reunite with daughter

Sally Duffy Grobler (80) was ready to fly from her home in South Africa to London

Sally Duffy Grobler and her son Peter at her 80th birthday celebration. Photograph: Peter du Toit

Sally Duffy Grobler and her son Peter at her 80th birthday celebration. Photograph: Peter du Toit


Retired Donegal nurse Sally Duffy Grobler (80) had been looking forward to spending Christmas with her daughter Ellen in London. They had not seen each other in two years.

Ticket bought, and ready to fly to London from her home in South Africa, Sally’s plans were ruined at the last minute by the arrival of a new Covid variant and the shutdown of flights out of the country.

“She has been dying to get back to see my sister and hasn’t been able to because we have been on a [travel] red list for months,” her son Peter said from his home on the Eastern Cape.

“And then in October we were so delighted that we got off that list and she got so excited and started to make plans...I had a funny feeling that something would go wrong.”

That news arrived on Friday. Sally’s €800 airline ticket became useless overnight - she must wait until yet another year to see Ellen, her only other child.

Sally’s story seems typical of countless others in southern Africa. Peter said there was a palpable sense of dismay; people trying desperately to get out, seeking alternative routes through countries such as Egypt and Angola for any remaining flights. Covid had dealt another heavy blow to the region, right on the cusp of Christmas.

“Everything has just been thrown into disarray. There are quite a few Facebook groups and you see the posts coming in,” he said. “People just don’t know what to do.”

Originally from Gweedore in Co Donegal, Sally has been living in Africa for just over 50 years. She worked as a nurse in the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She has seen a lot over those years and though disappointed at the latest Covid development, she takes a philosophical view of the disruption.

“She is resilient and always a positive person,” said Peter. “She was brave about it all. I just think she thinks about the greater good and what’s best for the world at large, trying to contain this new variant.”

Peter worries about what will happen next - even when it becomes possible for European citizens to travel back, he read that UK hotel bills for 10 days of mandatory quarantine are now surpassing £2,000 (€2,360), which is about two years’ worth of South African pension payments.

With her non-refundable airline ticket set aside for another day, Sally, like countless others in the Irish diaspora, can only wait to see what happens next.

“She is 80 now,” said Peter. “It’s difficult; she really misses her [daughter].”