'I never imagined it would be so long': the couples kept apart by Covid rules

Many long-distance couples are spending Valentine’s Day apart because of travel restrictions

Tim and Helen Riddle
Tim and Helen Riddle. He hasn’t been home in almost a year, and she says it is ‘really beginning to take a toll’. Photograph: Supplied
Tim and Helen Riddle. He hasn’t been home in almost a year, and she says it is ‘really beginning to take a toll’. Photograph: Supplied

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 03.20 EST

Helen Riddle’s husband, Tim, hasn’t been home in almost a year. He left the UK in March last year for what was supposed to be two weeks, and Covid-19 measures have prevented his return. His Christmas presents wait for him under the tree their three children insist on keeping up until he gets back.

Tim is a pilot who flies medical equipment around the world. Though he has lived in Hong Kong for the past six years, he would normally come home every six to eight weeks. Before he left again in March, Helen says they begged him not to go but he had no choice but to return to work. “At that point I thought: ‘We’re not going to see him for a while,’ but I never, ever imagined it would be as long as it has been.”

As the pandemic worsened and international travel restrictions tightened, returning to the UK became impossible. “If he came home for a week, he’d have to quarantine for two weeks back in Hong Kong and he couldn’t get that much time off work,” Helen says. Tim was finally given special leave to come home in January, but that went out the window when the Hong Kong government upped quarantine to three weeks.

“That tipped me over the edge, to be honest,” she says tearfully, reflecting on the fact that he has spent most of the pandemic alone. “He’s missed a year out of the children’s lives and they’ve missed a year out of his. I’m aware we’re not the only family in this situation, but it’s really beginning to take a toll on us.”

With the help of Tim’s company, she was able to take the kids out to Hong Kong last summer to see him. Leaving him again was “horrific”, she says. “We all tried so hard not to cry, but in the end I had to prise the youngest off him. We dropped him off, drove round the corner and all burst into tears.”

As many celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, there are countless long-distance couples who are still unable to see each other and unable to plan to meet in the face of quarantines, travel bans and uncertainty.

When Covid hit, Peter Kehoe and his girlfriend of six years had already done a year of long-distance after her visa ran out and she returned to Australia for a year to study. This was meant to come to an end in April last year, when the plan was for him to get a visa to join her in Australia and get married.

But because they didn’t live together for that year, they don’t have the level of documentation required for him to qualify as a partner for compassionate exemption to Australia’s strict hotel quarantine rules, Kehoe says. They are anxious that she wouldn’t be able to get a UK marriage visitor visa either as weddings are on hold due to lockdown restrictions.

To complicate matters further, Kehoe is due to begin a master’s in New York in August. “It’s unclear if we’ll be able to meet by then and go together,” says Kehoe, who hasn’t seen his girlfriend since January last year. “It’s frustrating, we’re both quite practical – the hardest part is the uncertainty.”

Jesse Jan Driessen jests that a big part of coping with distance in a relationship has been accepting that being in lockdown means a lot of mundane conversation. He met his girlfriend, a freelance writer from the US who has been hopping time zones for the past two years, in February 2020.

The pair lived together in London through the first lockdown from April to July, until her tourist visa expired. While she has lived between Croatia, Serbia and Turkey in recent months, Driessen has been back at home in Cornwall with his family.

Focusing on making ambitious plans for the life they might have together once they’re both vaccinated has helped them cope, Driessen says. “Right now that’s a small farm for rescue animals in northern Spain. Most of our conversations are about baby goats.”

Anyone in a long-distance relationship would attest that having something to look forward to – being able to plan for the future and put dates in the diary to see each other – is a vital coping mechanism, which the pandemic has snatched away.

“The hardest part is that I can’t give the children a time to look forward to, we haven’t got a date in sight to aim for – that’s really tough,” says Helen Riddle, who doesn’t know when she and Tim will next see each other. “I don’t think either of us dare to think too far ahead at the moment. It’s just about getting through the next few weeks and months until we can be together again.

“We’ve both tried to be positive and not very honest about how we feel. I think if we went there we would just crumble.”