Political leaders have swiftly distanced themselves from a suggestion by Virgin Australia's chief executive that Australia's international border should reopen sooner than the middle of next year even though "some people may die" of COVID-19.
The airline boss, Jayne Hrdlicka, made the comments on Monday at a business forum in Brisbane as part of a growing push to encourage the federal government to announce a clear roadmap to reopen Australia as the population gets vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The Virgin Australia chief executive warned that, with closed borders, Australia risks being left behind by the rest of the world, and the community could learn to live with the virus.
"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," the airline boss said.
"Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu."
The federal budget contains a vague assumption, based on health advice, that the international border will gradually open by mid-next year. But the government is under growing pressure from business leaders, top health officials, Coalition backbenchers and some state leaders to provide certainty and introduce a clear timeline for reopening.
The safety of our guests has always been our number one priority – nothing will change that. We have worked in lock-step with State and Federal governments to put the health and safety of Australians first, and we’ll keep doing that as we learn to live with COVID-19.— Virgin Australia (@VirginAustralia) May 18, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison favours a cautious, staged approach to reopening Australia, including a proposed first step in relaxing domestic border controls.
He does not want any more Covid-related deaths in Australia and quashed Ms Hrdlicka's suggestion to open even though "some people may die."
"I regret that those comments were somewhat insensitive," Mr Morrison told reporters in Caboolture.
"You know, 910 Australians have lost their lives. Every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy, and it doesn't matter how old they were. Some were younger, some were older. They were someone's mum, someone's dad, someone's auntie, someone's cousin, brother, sister, friend. 910 - all felt extremely consciously by those loved ones around them.
The Prime Minister said any move to open Australia's international border will be based on "clinical, proven evidence".
"I'm not going to take risks with Australians' lives. I'm not going to do that," he said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is keen to reopen borders based on a successful vaccination program. She's put forward her own target of 5 million adults to be vaccinated in NSW before borders are reopened. So far, 1 million doses have been administered amongst the state's 6 million adults.
But the Premier recoiled when asked on Tuesday how many deaths she thought would be acceptable.
"Please, no death is acceptable. Please don't put words in my mouth. I've never said that and I never would," she said.
"We've worked hard in NSW to protect life, to keep community safety and that's what we will do. There's no doubt that the vaccine program is key to our freedom. Having a successful vaccine program is key to making sure that we can make decisions moving forward about our future, but we can't even think about those decisions unless the vast majority of our population are vaccinated.
"Any conversations we have now are premature."
The Greens' disability spokesman Jordan Steel-John was disgusted by the comments.
"Just accepting people may die, as a disabled person who is part of that community, that is extraordinarily offensive language. That needs to be called out," the senator said on Tuesday.
"How many disabled people is it acceptable to have die in a context where this government's vaccine rollout has not yet cracked 1000 people in a community of 4.4 million across the country?"
Virgin Australia has released a statement which encourages the international border being opened based on health advice, and learning to live with the virus, but does not raise the issue of a number of acceptable deaths.
"We have and will continue to work closely with both state and federal governments to support the health and safety of the Australian community," the statement said.
"We agree with state and federal leaders that eradication of COVID-19 cannot be the goal for our country. The question is not if, but when, we will be sufficiently vaccinated to protect our people and our hospital system to open our international borders.
"We must learn to live with COVID-19 in the community in a way that protects the health and safety of our people but also opens Australia up to the rest of the world."
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