Virgin Australia chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka said on Thursday she accepts her “some people may die” border comments were hurtful and would “choose different words” if she had her time again.
“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,” she said in a speech at QUT on Monday.
It marked Hrdlicka’s first comments on the controversy that started on Monday, when she appeared to advocate that the country will have to accept some illness from COVID when borders open, with vaccines unlikely to prove 100 per cent effective.
Following days of “extraordinary” backlash, Hrdlicka addressed her words at a press conference on Thursday morning, joined by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
“I absolutely understand my words, taken in isolation, were hurtful to some people,” she said. “If I had my time again I would choose different words, to make the same point.”
“We are a domestic airline that is committed to keeping the community safe,” she added.
It came as The Australian obtained a memo sent by Hrdlicka to staff on Wednesday that similarly addressed the fallout.
“I absolutely understand how those comments, taken in isolation, have upset some in the community — and that was never my intention,” Hrdlicka said.
“If I had my time again, I would make my point a bit differently.
“At the end of a Q&A session, a question was put to me about the positions of Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton and former deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, on eradication of COVID-19, and once a population is vaccinated, what the next steps around opening borders should be.
“My starting point was — and always will be — that our critical priority should be to protect our vulnerable and get them vaccinated, and then make vaccination available to the rest of our population.
“Only when vulnerable members of our community have access to the vaccines they need, and vaccines are available more broadly, and therefore our hospital system is protected, can we begin to open up and learn to live and work safely with COVID in the community.
“I was not and would never advocate opening borders before we have protected the vulnerable and others who want vaccination.
“Just as we have learned to open our domestic borders and keep the community safe, we can do the same with international borders.
.@VirginAustralia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka has addressed her controversial comments about border closures while speaking in Brisbane this morning. The airline boss said on Monday that Australia’s borders should be reopened, even if “some people may die”. https://t.co/Rql2Eda0bd #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/GIyuMqqGMR
— 7NEWS Australia (@7NewsAustralia) May 20, 2021
“We need to be open again as a country — it is just a question of doing that in a gradual way that keeps the community safe.”
Hrdlicka seemed to inadvertently start a national conversation on Monday when she was reported to have said opening the country’s borders would mean “some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu”.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison branded the Virgin CEO “insensitive”, arguing he was “not going to take risks with Australians’ lives” and would maintain a regime “that has so far avoided the loss of 30,000 lives”.
PM Morrison said, “I would encourage people to know 910 Australians lost their lives. Every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy, and it doesn’t matter how old they were.”
Later on Tuesday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also appeared to also criticise Hrdlicka’s views by arguing that “no death is acceptable” when it comes to reducing the spread of COVID.
“We’ve worked hard in New South Wales to protect life, to keep community safety and that’s what we will do,” Premier Berejiklian said.