Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka says Australia cannot keep its borders shut indefinitely despite the risk of COVID-19.
Ms Hrdlicka made the comments at a business function hosted by the Queensland University of Technology on Monday.
Ms Hrdlicka argued that Australia needed to discuss opening the borders as the vaccine rollout ramped up, according to the university’s media unit.
“We can’t keep [COVID] out forever,” she reportedly said.
“It will make us sick but won’t put us into hospital. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than the flu.”
Last Tuesday’s federal budget assumed Australia’s borders would reopen mid next year, but the government has resisted outlining a time frame, saying it will open the borders when it is safe to do so.
Virgin later issued a statement responding to Ms Hrdlicka’s comments, saying that eradication of COVID-19 cannot be Australia’s long-term goal.
“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,” a Virgin spokesman said.
“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.”
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler said the comments were not helpful.
“I’m not sure, with the greatest respect, that those sorts of contributions are going to do much to bend the will of the Australian public to what she wants to do, and what other businesses, I guess, who want international travel to resume, might want to see in this public debate,” Mr Butler said.
“Australians understandably want some confidence that they’re going to be safe as we start to consider a pathway out of this pandemic.”
He urged business groups to wait until the vaccine rollout had been completed, and there were more quarantine options.
“There just needs to be a bit of patience among businesses like that and recognise that the Australian community want to take this slowly and steadily and have much more information and confidence that the Australian government has those core jobs in hand before we think about opening borders,” he said.
AMA joins calls for a roadmap
The Australian Medical Association has joined calls from the New South Wales government and some business leaders for the federal government to provide a roadmap for when borders could reopen.
AMA president Omar Khorshid said Australians are living in a “bizarre little bubble” and are becoming complacent about the virus.
“COVID is coming to Australia, it has to come, whether it’s through a breach of quarantine or because we open our borders, it is coming,” Dr Khorshid said.
“I think a conversation around the parameters that we’re going to be setting, when the borders are going to open, will help motivate Australians to say, ‘Yep, I’m going to go and get myself vaccinated.'”
He said he hoped the borders could reopen by the end of the year if enough people were vaccinated.
“There’s a really good chance we can get our population fully vaccinated by the end of the year and once that’s done what else do we need to do to open up? That’s the conversation we need to have right now,” he said.
Dr Khorshid also warned that Australia would likely face a terrible flu season when borders reopen and said he was worried hospitals would be stretched.
“It’s a hospital system that’s already completely full, bursting at the seams with ambulances parked outside, in a circumstance where we have no flu and no COVID,” he said.
“When we open those borders, we’re going to get both of those viruses … we haven’t had a flu season for a couple of years and we’re going to have a bad flu season, plus we’re going to get a certain number of people who get sick from COVID.
“We’ve got to make sure our system is ready to cope with that.”