melbourne port containers

Ports Australia has called on governments to establish a plan to protect supply chains from inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks once state lockdowns are lifted.

As the rapid increase in vaccination rates across the country encourages state lockdowns to be lifted after meeting certain thresholds, Ports Australia stressed the importance of planning for future supply chain outbreaks. When the country shifts to living with the virus, outbreaks spreading through the community and into supply chain networks will be unavoidable.

Ports Australia called for leadership from the Federal Government to avoid inconsistency and confusion in the industry, and it was not currently aware of any contingency plans being coordinated by government authorities for when outbreaks inevitably occur at key supply chain points, like ports or intermodal terminals.

Whether or not workers are vaccinated, Ports Australia called for plans for when outbreaks spread through workforces along the supply chain, be it port staff, truckies, rail operators, or anyone in between. 

Small pockets of those workforces being stood down was identified as the best-case scenario but still far from ideal; however, the time may come where an entire port’s operational labour force is struck.

Ports Australia stated that there is no way a critical piece of infrastructure like a capital city container port can be shut down which will avoid mass panic when supermarket shelves go unstocked or not compromise the already-fragile integrity of our economy. Equally, the impact on our economy will be devastating if any number of our major resource exporting ports are closed for a period of time.

Ports Australia’s CEO, Mike Gallacher, discussed the devastation such situations could cause and what industry needs from the government.

“The fragility of our economy and the looming threat of a recession will be crystallised like never before if we see unprecedented shutdowns along the supply chain,” Mr Gallacher said.

“We, the supply chain, know our job and we’ve got Australia’s back, but we need the assurance from government they have a firm understanding of how we operate which is reflected through their planning to protect our people and operations.

‘We’ve seen moments of public hysteria throughout the pandemic like when toilet paper went flying off supermarket shelves at unprecedented rates, and that was when the supply chain was strong-functioning!”

Ports Australia has urged governments to make a plan to answer questions such as:

  • What will be the protocol if a supply chain worker is infected? Will all close contacts (i.e. colleagues) be forced into isolation?
  • Will an area of the supply chain (e.g. port or terminal) be closed for cleaning following exposure to a COVID-19 case?

Ports Australia urges authorities to begin facilitating desktop exercises whereby industry and government can collaborate through real scenarios of workforce virus outbreaks and the like, ironing out the approach and management to situations which could become reality in coming months. This initiative could be driven by the Federal Government and executed by government departments across individual jurisdictions.

Once such planning has been completed, industry members will need clear direction from their relevant health and safety authorities as to the protocols in place to protect their workers and maintain the flow of trade.

Mr Gallacher said, “We cannot afford to have this poorly planned… we appreciate government authorities are overwhelmed right now but that will be taken to a whole new level when panic ensues once again.”

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