Op-ed: How Our Freight Won the Covid Fight

Broad industry resilience brought the nation through the crisis

By: Paul Scurrah

Having lived through my own Covid crisis as the then CEO of Virgin Australia, I admired how the freight and logistics sector quickly mobilised to keep moving Australia’s economy.

The tragedy in India and recent transmissions at home have reminded us of the lightning speed and destructive effects of coronavirus. The links within our national supply chain must remain unbroken to help protect jobs and businesses.

Looking into the menacing jaws of a 1-in-100-year global pandemic, Australia’s freight and logistics sector faced an uncertain future this time last year.

The speed of Covid -19 transmissions tested finely tuned international and domestic supply chains, threatening to derail delivery of household goods and export commodities.

With Australians isolating in their homes reliant on supply chains remaining open, the virus started to rapidly eat through links binding rail, road, sea, and air freight operations.

To ensure our national economy kept moving during the crisis, our sector had to act fast.

This included working closely with Australasian Transport News (ATN) to highlight how critical it was for governments to guarantee efficient freight movements across state borders in the face of ever tightening public health and travel orders.

Thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of jobs, many based in the regions, hung in the balance.

While most freight and logistics operations happen out of sight of the public, more people today appreciate how the sector helps underpin our nation’s economic prosperity and social cohesion.

Behind the scenes a silent army of skilled workers toil away 24/7 365 days of the year to ensure families and businesses have the supplies they need.

While freight isn’t considered a glamorous industry it’s a key ingredient connecting businesses with consumers and Australian exporters and importers to global markets.

With consumers panic buying at supermarkets as lockdowns were announced, politicians at all levels quickly pivoted to reassure Australians that essential daily freight services would be prioritised.

A single shipping container can hold up to 25,000 rolls of toilet paper, 50,000 cans of food, 1,500 cases of beer, 900 boxes of bananas, 100 fridges, or 24 tonnes of grain. To put this in perspective, a typical freight train service between Sydney and Perth can transport up to 330 containers.

Covid also reinforced how Australia’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, notably farm-fresh produce, grain, iron ore and coal. Our farmers, miners, and import-export businesses compete in cut-throat markets where every cent counts towards winning or losing a contract.

More than that, added delays and associated costs in the national supply chain increase cost of living pressures for millions of Australian households. People are forced to pay more at the checkout.

The pandemic caused disruption with international cargo shipping and port operations, but Australia was fortunate to have enough rail and road capacity to form ‘freight land bridges’ to transport goods and commodities between our capital cities.

To their credit, federal and state governments listened to the advice and expertise of our sector and worked cooperatively with us to ensure freight continued to be delivered.

National Cabinet moved quickly to classify freight and logistics as an essential service and our frontline workers were deemed essential travellers allowing them to cross borders without having to go into a 14-day quarantine before or after each delivery run.

In response, industry introduced detailed Covid plans – heightened health and safety measures ensured adherence to strict hygiene standards, social distancing, and separation from the public.

Freight and logistics operations also have the added benefit of being conducted largely within closed transport corridors and terminals off limits to the public.

Fortunately, as Australians, we benefit from a political system which hasn’t yet fractured to the extremes.

Our two main political parties – at both the federal and state level – came together in a crisis to ensure the supply chains of our Federation remained intact.

*Paul Scurrah is CEO of Pacific National

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