Sir Richard Branson has urged the Australian government to speed up its vaccine rollout or risk being held back.
“If not, it should be the number-one priority of the government, nothing else matters more, to be honest,” he told Nine News.
It comes after this month’s budget papers strongly hinted international travel will not fully resume until mid-2022.
The later date has been blamed on delays to Australia’s inoculation program, caused by a shift in policy to prioritise administering the Pfizer vaccine to under 50s rather than the Oxford vaccine that the country has in far greater supply.
Sir Richard said Australia was “a small country” and argued most people “should have been vaccinated”.
“Because every single business in Australia will be held back,” he said. “Every single person in Australia will be held back.
“If the government can speed up the vaccination program so everyone is vaccinated then there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t be able to get opened up.”
He also defended Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, after she sparked a national debate last week when she suggested a vaccinated Australia should open its borders, even if it could potentially lead to some people dying.
She later said she accepted her comments were hurtful and would “choose different words” if she had her time again.
Sir Richard said “we’ve all regretted things we’ve said” and said she was doing a “great job in keeping Virgin Australia going”.
Branson’s comments follow a similar intervention by Melbourne Airport’s chief executive Lyell Strambi, who also argued Australia needs to speed up its vaccine rollout or risk being left behind other nations.
“In the short-term, our splendid isolation is ultra-safe from COVID, but in the long-term it will act as a handbrake on the economy, jobs and opportunities for Australians,” he said.
“While the recovery has commenced, it remains fragile. We need to be more aggressive in relation to the vaccine rollout, in order to realise the benefits of Australia’s remarkable management of COVID-19.
“It is increasingly likely that Australia will be left behind as countries around the world reopen to one another on the back of high vaccination rates.
“Demand for international travel clearly exists and we are hopeful that once we get a high proportion of our population protected by vaccines, we can start to carefully reopen to counties with similarly high rates of vaccination and low rates of infection.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s revelation that borders wouldn’t open until halfway through next year forced Qantas to push back its plan to restart long-haul flights from 31 October to December.