Jurisdictions must get on board Freight Movement Protocol

At the time of writing this column, Australia is at a seminal moment in its battle against the coronavirus pandemic. The rollout of the national vaccination program is underway and headlines are awash with euphoria that the end of Covid-19 is beginning. It is indeed a tremendous achievement and a credit to the scientific and medical community that an effective vaccine has been developed in record time.

Without wanting to dampen enthusiasm over this great milestone, it is however important to remember that Covid isn’t going away in the short-medium term, and that we will be living with the virus strains for at least 24-36 months as the community is vaccinated and herd immunity established. This means that we will have to remain in a state of preparedness for new community outbreaks like we saw recently in Victoria and WA, which will mean further lockdowns and associated restrictions on travel and border crossings.

With this being the case, it is high time our state and federal representatives stood up to the challenge of doing something much more permanent about managing disciplines that have been enacted in response to Covid, especially when it comes to the movement of freight. Many have stumbled and bumbled in their response to isolated community outbreaks, showing ineptitude by closing borders with little to no notice given to industry and the community, and ambivalence by shirking commitments they made to keep state and national supply chains functional.

Each of these jurisdictions has established its own form of communication and reactions when it comes to interstate and intrastate travel restrictions, regrettably to the detriment of the road freight transport industry.

Logistics operators have demonstrated they can adhere to new disciplines to keep freight moving, with many adjusting their business activities so they exceed standards required by government. The industry should be applauded for being able to move freight through the community during a pandemic, without moving the virus around, which shows that by being committed, responsible and diligent, freight workers have refrained from transmitting infection.

Unfortunately, the industry continues to be ignored by some sections of the bureaucracy, despite the results produced and the increase in community demand for freight services. Last April, the Commonwealth called all state transport ministers together to formulate and sign off on a Protocol for Domestic Border Controls – Freight Movements. This Freight Movement Protocol was ratified in August, and clearly defined minimum standards jurisdictions would need to meet when borders were necessarily closed.

As an essential service, the freight industry has been consistently let down by state authorities when it comes to application of these minimum standards whenever a border is closed.

Our worst fears were realised on February 11 when a B-double truck driver travelling at 100 km/h around a bend on the Western Highway at 2.20am, ran into the back of the last vehicle in a seven-kilometre line of traffic. The vehicles were stopped because of a border closure that did not meet the minimum standards of border crossing protocols.

The driver, Steven Lawrie, died tragically at the scene and our condolences and heartfelt sorrow go out to his family and friends. Two others were hospitalised and are recovering from their injuries.

The accident that claimed Mr Lawrie’s life did not need to occur.

By providing a diversion and wave-through lane for essential travellers, as per the national protocol, the location and operation of this particular border lockdown would not have resulted in a fatality, which begs the question: what’s the point of having a protocol if the bureaucracy isn’t prepared to follow it? The protocol was implemented for the protection of all drivers, not just freight transport workers, and it is disappointing and a great tragedy that lessons must be learned through road accidents and fatalities that were preventable.

The transport industry does not begrudge jurisdictions for taking steps to defend their citizens against Covid-19 and unwanted community transmission. But we do begrudge the lack of application of disciplines that are intended to keep freight moving efficiently, productively and safely.

Throughout the pandemic the freight industry has protected the community and provided their needs. Our drivers are deserving of the same protections to keep them safe.

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