Virgin boss says Australia’s borders should reopen sooner than mid-2022 even though ‘some people may die’

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Virgin Airlines is standing by its chief executive’s comment that Australia’s borders should reopen sooner than the middle of next year even though “some people may die”.

The airline CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, told a Queensland University of Technology business lunch on Monday that Australia risked being left behind if it did not reopen borders once a sufficient portion of the population had been vaccinated.

“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,” Hrdlicka said in widely reported comments that were not disputed by the airline.

Related: Scott Morrison rejects calls for quicker Australia border reopening, citing ‘cautious approach’

“It will make us sick but won’t put us into hospital … 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 [Australia] has to learn how to live with this.”

Hrdlicka reportedly told the forum that it was a mistake to believe that Australia could keep the virus out “forever”, and said that remaining isolated from the rest of the world posed both a health and economic risk to the country.

“We’re all going to be sicker than we ever have been in the past because we’re not exposed to the viruses and challenges that the rest of the world is dealing with so we need to get the borders open for our health and the economy,” she said.

“It needs to change so that Covid will become part of the community.”

After portions of her speech were reported on Monday evening, in which she stressed that borders should only open once vulnerable Australians had received a vaccine, Virgin released a statement in which it did not back away from the comments, saying the airline believed Australia “must learn to live with Covid-19 in the community”.

“We have and will continue to work closely with both state and federal governments to support the health and safety of the Australian community,” a company spokesperson 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.”

The comments come amid increasing pressure from state leaders for the federal government to explain how the rollout of the vaccine was linked to the reopening of borders.

Following comments from the Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton that the country could not remain as “fortress Australia”, the state’s acting premier James Merlino said on Monday that changes could be made “once we can get to a point where the vaccine has been successfully rolled out to a large extent”.

Similarly, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said she wanted borders open as “soon as possible”, saying the cost to the state of closures was $1.5bn a month.

“If we get the majority of our population vaccinated, well, then we can think about opening our international borders, and that’s what New South Wales works really hard to achieve,” Berejikilian said.

The comments follow calls over the weekend from federal Liberal Party MPs Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson and Jason Falinski for borders to open faster than the mid-2022 budget target, saying the vaccination rollout should allow an easing of restrictions.

But on Monday, the prime minister Scott Morrison poured water on that suggestion, saying Australians understand that the government is taking a “cautious approach” that will see a gradual easing of restrictions.

Hrdlicka is not the only head of a major Australian airline to call for a faster reopening of borders. Last month Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, said Australia “can’t fall behind” the rest of the world in its vaccine rollout.

“There should be no reason why we don’t open up international borders,” Joyce said days before the opening of the trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand.

“We can’t fall behind. We know other countries are ahead of us [with the vaccine rollout] … and cannot be laggers here and fall behind the rest of the world. We will fall behind economically and some sectors will take a hit. I think the government is aware of that.

But the comments were criticised by some public health experts, including the Kirby Institute’s infectious disease expert Bill Bowtell who wrote on Twitter that the CEO should outline “how many deaths and infections” were acceptable.

“Really? Could ⁦[Hrdlicka] please let us know the modelling she’s working on? How many deaths and infections ok? Too many? Too few? And how many unvaccinated ok before opening up and letting it run? Figures required.” he wrote.

Like all commercial airlines, Virgin has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year the company was placed into administration, before being sold to Boston-based private equity giant Bain Capital for $3.5bn.

About 3,000 of the airlines workforce were stood down during the pandemic, and Hrdlicka has previously refused to rule out further cuts to the company’s 6,000 remaining staff.

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