What a difference a month can make in a pandemic.
It was only early last December that we were in the tail end of the Delta variant, with falling case numbers and cautious optimism about returning to some sort of normalcy in 2022. Fast forward six weeks and Omicron has taken hold to exacerbate already fragile supply chains, setting the scene for a roller coaster start to the year.
This apparently more virulent, but less harmful, variant of Covid has refocussed national attention on supply chains, vindicating the Victorian Transport Association (VTA) and industry’s position on a range of issues from mandatory vaccinations, essential service designations, and now, rapid antiget testing (RAT) for freight workers.
Throughout lockdowns last year, the VTA led calls for rapid antigen tests to replace personally intrusive and difficult to obtain PCR testing for drivers. Jurisdictions were resistant to such calls, preferring instead to require up to three PCR tests a week for interstate drivers just to maintain their border crossing permits.
But with Omicron cases now overwhelming PCR testing centres and close contact rules decimating the healthcare workforce, jurisdictions have done a massive 180 on rapid testing so that people can test themselves.
On a related matter, the Commonwealth and numerous states and territories have changed their close contact rules to enable asymptomatic close Covid contacts in critical industries to return to work immediately.
To address the growing shortage of workers in supply chains across the country, the Prime Minister flagged that workers in supermarkets, distribution centres, transport and other critical industries would be exempt from isolation if they were a close contact and had returned a negative Covid test result.
As an association, we welcomed the announcement and urged states and territories to immediately adopt the changes to prevent further supply chain disruptions. Victoria responded to exempt close contact transport workers from isolation requirements provided they returned a negative rapid antigen test every day for five days.
If a critical service worker is identified as a close Covid contact but returns a negative test result, there is no reason they shouldn’t be permitted to return to work, so we welcome this variation to the rules and encourage the states and territories to adopt it immediately. This should include those that have had and recovered from Covid and have since returned a negative test result.
While the Victorian government is to be commended for abolishing isolation requirements for close contact transport workers, its additional requirement that they be tested every day for five days with a RAT presents its own challenges.
The freight industry has experienced the same problems finding rapid tests as everyone else and where they are a legal requirement of government to work – such as in Victoria – rapid tests should be made readily available at no cost to the operator or driver.
Rapid antigen testing is likely to be a condition for close contacts to return to work in other jurisdictions and where this is the case it is the VTA’s position that governments should be supplying the tests at no charge.
The VTA had been advocating for rapid tests to replace PCR testing for months as a less intrusive form of testing for freight workers.
Interstate heavy vehicle drivers have been testing up to three times a week for many months as a condition of maintaining their border crossing permits and we welcome the conversion to rapid tests across many jurisdictions.
But with supply chains on the brink of collapse and rapid tests not readily available, it is incumbent on any government that mandates rapid tests as a condition of working that they supply them free of charge – just as they have been doing with PCR tests for many months.
Measures to support our state and national supply chains will feature prominently at the annual VTA State Conference, planned for March 20-22 at Silverwater Resort, Phillip Island (Victoria).
Under our theme of Attaining Post-pandemic Supply Chain Sovereignty, we look forward to two days of intense and informative discussion with key stakeholders from government, industry and regulators, and identifying solutions to the supply chain crisis facing the nation.
Peter Anderson is the CEO of the Victorian Transport Association.