Prime Minister Scott Morrison has slammed Virgin Australia chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka for saying Australia’s borders needed to reopen even though “some people may die”.
The Virgin Australia boss said if vaccination levels were high enough and vulnerable people were protected, the federal government should take the risk of opening its international borders sooner than June 2022.
The government’s gloomy revision for international travel was projected in last week’s federal budget after Australians put hopes on an initial target to reopen in October this year.
On Monday, Ms Hrdlicka said: “COVID will be part of the community, we will become sick with COVID and it won’t put us in hospital, and it won’t put people into dire straits because we’ll have a vaccine. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu. We’re forgetting the fact that we’ve learnt how to live with lots of viruses and challenges over the years, and we’ve got to learn how to live with this.”
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister labelled the Virgin boss‘s comments as “insensitive”.
“Nine-hundred-and-ten Australians have lost their lives,” Mr Morrison said on Tuesday. “Every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy, and it doesn‘t matter how old they were.
“They were someone‘s mum, someone’s dad, someone’s aunty, someone’s cousin, brother, sister, friend.
“So, no. I find it very difficult to have any part of what was said there.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also distanced herself from Ms Hrdlicka’s comments.
“Look, I don't know whether those comments were taken out of context or not,” she said.
“I think we need to be very sympathetic and mindful to the fact community safety always comes first.
“But in NSW we've demonstrated you can keep the community safe but also push ahead with economic openness, and it’s that right balance that has kept NSW where it is.
“We intend to keep that right balance.”
There have been growing calls for the federal government to reopen borders and accept a certain level of COVID-19 in the community once the vaccine has been rolled out.
But Mr Morrison was defiant in responding, “I‘m not going to take risks with Australians’ lives.”
Ms Berejiklian said she did not have a threshold of COVID-19 hospitalisations that was acceptable.
“Please, no death is acceptable, please don’t put words in my mouth,” she told a reporter.
“I’ve never said that and I never would. We have worked hard in NSW to protect life to keep communities safe and that’s what we’ll do.
“(But) there’s no doubt the vaccine program is key to our freedom.”
However, Ms Berejiklian did suggest June 2022 was too long to wait to reopen borders.
“We can’t have these conversations until we vaccinate the majority of the population,” she said.
“We need to get cracking and do the work … but I’m very keen to bring timetables forward.
“I don’t want us to be closed off from the world longer than we need to.”