Trucking industry caught short by hotspot announcement

National rural trucking body pleads for government border coordination

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Filling up: The livestock transport industry hasn't been as affected by announcements of closures to COVID-19 hotspots as the freight industry, to date. Picture: Sally Gall.

Filling up: The livestock transport industry hasn't been as affected by announcements of closures to COVID-19 hotspots as the freight industry, to date. Picture: Sally Gall.

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Prior consultation and a cohesive national plan for the management of border closures may be hard to achieve but that's what the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association would like to see happen before any more abrupt announcements are made.

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Prior consultation and a cohesive national plan for the management of border closures may be hard to achieve but that's what the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association would like to see happen before any more abrupt announcements are made.

An urgent special bulletin was issued by the ALRTA on August 1 after the Northern Territory government gave interstate travellers only a few hours notice that it had declared Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan as COVID-19 hotspots.

That meant truck drivers who had been in those areas in the previous 14 days would either not be allowed entry to the NT or would be required to undergo a supervised 14 day quarantine period at a cost of $2500.

"Given the extremely short notice, it is possible that members or other drivers are already loaded and in transit to the NT," the bulletin read. "This is a rapidly evolving situation and the NT government has flagged the likelihood of further hotspots being declared."

Exemptions granted before July 17 were invalid if the person travelling had been in an identified hotspot.

ALRTA executive director Matthew Munro said he thought they had got the word out quickly enough among the 700 member companies and that no driver had been caught out in the end.

"The problem areas contain some of the larger meat processing plants in the country so there wouldn't be many of our drivers not stopping there," he said. "The announcement had the potential to be a problem."

Mr Munro said they had already worked closely with various governments on issues such as the closure of truck stops, to clarify rules and put the case of long-haul drivers, and they had been listening.

"But we'd like to see a national system in place for managing border closures," he said.

"We understand states have sovereign rights and health and safety has to come first, but we'd like governments to talk with each other.

"At the moment they're acting in isolation but we want a coordinated protection regime that allows for the movement of goods.

"It's integral to the economy - important things such as meat are coming out of Brisbane, but other things such as seasonal fruit and vegetables are coming in as well."

Livestock and freight trucks have been a constant on national highways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Livestock and freight trucks have been a constant on national highways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examples of the uncertainty faced by the trucking industry in dealing with multiple COVID-19 regimes include one state saying they can't come in unless they've had a test within the past seven days, while the state they are in refuses to test people that are asymptomatic.

"It's just widespread uncertainty - these things are confusing," Mr Munro said.

"There are broad announcement by ministers that we scramble to understand.

"We want to be compliant."

He pointed to another case where stipulations brought in by the Australian Lot Feeders Association had blocked drivers from using amenities after hours of driving, saying they were able to get them modified after negotiation.

"Consultation is the way to get workable solutions in place," Mr Munro said.

Incoming Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of Queensland president Gerard Johnson said while there had been some comment, the issue hadn't been as problematic for livestock truck drivers as it had been for those handling freight.

Having said that, he was waiting to see what the August 8 hard border closure with NSW would bring.

"So far we've been able to cross relatively easily - hopefully by having the right permit it should be easy to manage," he said.

As far as the ALRTA's frustration with precipitous announcements and its hope for a coordinated process, Mr Johnson said that would be easier but he couldn't see it happening.

"It's something we're always battling with," he said.

Crisis talks

The situation that unfolded following the NT government announcement took place as the Australian Trucking Association board held crisis talks with the deputy Prime Minister following the collapse of an interstate agreement aimed at speeding the flow of freight.

Despite a National Cabinet agreement in late July on a protocol for moving freight across borders and screening truck drivers for COVID every seven to 14 days, the ATA said state governments had imposed inconsistent and unachievable testing requirements and failed to provide the necessary testing facilities.

"The states' COVID-19 testing requirements are a national crisis. They will shut the national trucking industry down if they are not fixed by the end of the week," ATA chair David Smith said at the time.

"We do not know if NSW requires truck drivers to be screened or if they just encourage it.

"In Victoria, truck drivers are being told they must self-isolate after a screening test, even though they do not have symptoms.

"At many Victorian testing centres yesterday, such as the Hamilton, Portland, Ballarat and Bacchus Marsh hospitals, and the Melton drive through clinic, drivers were turned away and flatly told they would not be tested.

"Meanwhile, in the early hours of Wednesday 29 July, there was a four kilometre queue of trucks at the South Australian border - in the fog.

"It is complete chaos and is completely unnecessary. Australia's trucking businesses and drivers have done a great job throughout the pandemic and are now being shoved around because the states are ignoring the national agreement they signed."

Mr Smith said the ATA board had asked the federal government to-

  • press the state and territory governments to implement the protocol as agreed
  • ensure that testing requirements, including self-isolation requirements, are clarified and consistent, and
  • ensure that testing facilities are convenient and accessible to truck drivers.

"If drivers are required to be screened, there must have appropriate facilities in place," Mr Smith said.

"We recommended to the deputy Prime Minister that pop-up screening facilities be established along major freight routes. They need to be open 24/7 and run by Australian Defence Force personnel if required, in order to keep up with demand," he said.

Mr Smith said the Deputy Prime Minister sympathised with the trucking industry and understood the challenges faced by operators.

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