After a horror 2020, throughout which our truck drivers have been widely lauded as Australian heroes, who would have thought that in late 2021 state governments would be threatening to take away their livelihoods, crikey, even the Christmas ham is under threat? This is the question being asked by the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association.
It’s no secret that Australian road transport operators have carried the nation during drought, fires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions have been challenging. Personal safety is often at risk. Basic amenities have been withdrawn. The increased regulatory burden of border permits, COVID-safe plans, COVID testing, delayed test results, PPE and isolation requirements have pushed many to breaking point.
Throughout it all, our truck drivers have kept on delivering, and considering the tens of thousands of interstate truck movements occurring every single day, there have been comparatively few COVID events linked to truck drivers. Where these have occurred, regular testing has provided early detection while COVID safe plans have limited transmission and enabled rapid contract tracing.
Yet, right now, state governments are progressively introducing mandatory vaccination requirements for interstate truck drivers, in some cases giving just two weeks notice. No jab, no border pass. Simple as that.
This course of action is completely unacceptable. What happens if your transport operation relies on interstate business and yourself or your staff are unable to meet these requirements? You go broke that’s what. And governments just don’t seem to care. Talk about short memories.
While ALRTA appreciates the efforts of certain governments to prioritise vaccination availability for freight workers over recent weeks, industry has been calling for this to occur since vaccines were first available. After all, it makes sense to prioritise cohorts in respect of which governments have recognised a need to impose risk-based movement restrictions. As it stands, there remains a significant proportion of truck drivers who are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
Our association believes that more than 85 per cent of truck drivers will eventually volunteer for vaccination. However, many drivers living in regional areas have experienced long delays in availability. In some cases, vaccine bookings have been cancelled with expected vaccine consignments re-directed to priority outbreak zones. Others report difficulty in accessing truck-friendly vaccination locations or in fitting a vaccination into an already busy schedule (given the time required to travel to/from a vaccination site, undergo the vaccination/observation, and the possibility that even a mild adverse reaction might prevent professional driving for at least 24hrs).
There are also individual truck drivers who, for a range of reasons, will never be vaccinated. Some have medical conditions that preclude vaccination. Some will refuse particular vaccines. Some will simply exercise their right not to be vaccinated. This may represent 5-15 per cent of all truck drivers.
A mandatory requirement for truck drivers to be vaccinated to obtain a valid border permit is a slap in the face to the road transport sector.
It is also widely known that there is an acute shortage of skilled truck drivers across Australia. ALRTA member operators report that a significant proportion of fleet vehicles remain ‘off the road’ at any one time because it is simply not possible to source qualified and appropriately skilled drivers.
The mandatory jab requirement will exacerbate the driver shortage, significantly reducing Australia’s interstate road freight capacity at a time when we should be doing everything possible to support a rapid economic recovery.
There are already warnings in the market that Australia will face a shortage of fresh produce in the lead up to Christmas. With some abattoirs operating at only 80% capacity, the red meat industry is predicting that 250,000 surplus spring lambs will not be processed this year. A lack of seasonal workers in horticulture will see fruit and vegetable shortages and skyrocketing prices. Crikey, even the Christmas ham is under threat!
This situation is occurring even when some meat processors have staff vaccination rates hovering around 80 – 90 per cent, plus stringent COVID-safe protocols in place. Placing increased pressure on the road transport supply chain is certainly not going to help this situation. ALRTA and our member associations are calling on governments to reject mandatory vaccinations for truck drivers in favour of improved vaccine rollout and appropriate incentives.
In this regard, our associations are recommending that:
- Truck drivers be prioritised for vaccination in all jurisdictions;
- Truck drivers be given free choice of vaccine type;
- Truck friendly vaccination clinics be provided at suitable locations;
- Vaccination validation be straightforward and nationally consistent;
- Interstate border protocols be modified for vaccinated drivers commensurate with the expected level of risk reduction (e.g. Longer duration border permits, alternative use of rapid antigen tests, reduced requirement for isolation when not working etc); and
- Separate COVID-safe protocols be established that enable unvaccinated interstate truck drivers to keep working.
Australian truck drivers have done their bit to support Australia. We now ask Ministers, Premiers and Chief Health Officers to support our truck drivers.