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As supply chains collapse, government policies have created a situation where as much as 40 per cent of the trucking and freight workforce has Covid-19. By Mike Seccombe.

Tracing the ‘nightmare’ reality of the shadow lockdown

Australia’s trucking industry has been devastated by the Omicron surge.
Australia’s trucking industry has been devastated by the Omicron surge.
Credit: Auscape / UIG via Getty Images

Exactly five months ago, in the middle of the New South Wales lockdown, Scott Morrison released a long statement aimed at persuading Australians to stop worrying about case numbers.

At the time, he was subject to heavy criticism for his government’s slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

“So while right now our national strategy is necessarily about suppressing the virus and vaccinating as many people as possible, a one-eyed focus on just case numbers overlooks the fact that less people are getting seriously ill, let alone dying,” the prime minister said.

“Shifting our focus from just case numbers, to actually looking at how many people are becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation will be increasingly what matters ... That’s the measure that should now start to guide our response. Rising cases need not impact our plan to reopen, and reopen as soon as we can. I know it seems pretty dark now, but it’s always darkest before the dawn, and dawn’s coming. So please hang in there.”

At the time, there had been a cumulative 44,000 cases of the virus in Australia. Now the Heath Department puts the number at  about 1.5 million. It is likely much higher, considering the breakdown in testing.

Infection rates in Australia have gone from being among the lowest in the world to being close to the highest. The United States has just warned its people not to travel here.

Even by Morrison’s redefinition, the situation has still got vastly worse. On the day of his entreaty, there were 603 people hospitalised in Australia, 107 of them in ICU and 37 ventilated. Three people died.

On Tuesday this week there were 5237 hospitalised, 419 in ICU, 131 ventilated. 

The past week has been the deadliest of the pandemic, with more than 350 deaths.

Back in August, while he was talking up the end of lockdowns and the need to get the economy open again, numerous experts were advising caution. Well before that, in July, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, a UNSW Sydney epidemiologist and adviser to the World Health Organization, told The Saturday Paper there was need for greater use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) if the economy was to be safely reopened. But governments – not just Morrison’s, also the states – did not lay in supplies.

Come year’s end – with the Omicron crisis exacerbated by the right-wing libertarian premier of NSW, Dominic Perrottet, deciding to ignore health advice and lift mask mandates and other restrictions – Scott Morrison again sought to redefine things.

On December 29, with case numbers rising exponentially, with hospitalisations at 1314, and with the tracing and testing systems unable to cope, Morrison called a media conference to announce that at the following day’s meeting of national cabinet he would propose the relaxation of the rules relating to close contacts, testing and isolation. Morrison did not attempt to justify this in public health terms but in economic ones.

“We just can’t have everybody just being taken out of circulation because they just happen to be at a particular place at a particular time,” he said.

The effect on the economy, “particularly given the fact that we are not seeing this impact on our hospital system”, made the former regimen “impractical”, he said.

“And so it is important that we move to a new definition of close contact that enables Australia to keep moving, for people to get on with their lives.”

But once again, redefining a problem has not fixed it. For the economy, in fact, it has made matters worse. The effect has been referred to as a “shadow lockdown” – the impacts of which are arguably greater than the official lockdowns that preceded it.

Hospitals – despite Morrison’s claim – are in crisis. Thousands of staff have been furloughed due to infection. In Victoria, army personnel are being called in to drive ambulances. Morrison’s “clear message to the private market” on testing has seen widespread price gouging.

Consumer confidence in January, according to this week’s ANZ–Roy Morgan survey, was the lowest in 30 years. Consumer spending has plunged and with it business confidence. In a survey of its members by Business NSW, 75 per cent of respondents described trading conditions as “weak” or “somewhat weak”. More than half expected that weakness to continue into the next quarter.

Retailers’ shelves are short of goods to sell and also the staff to sell them. Major supermarkets are restricting their trading hours and limiting purchases as a result. Many other businesses are simply closed. National supply chains are in chaos. Major logistics companies have jacked up their prices for handling goods.

The education sector is in disarray as the new school year starts, with authorities anticipating a lack of teaching staff. There is also uncertainty over safety protocols, given the government’s tardiness on vaccinating children and the lack of rapid antigen tests.

Wherever you look, says Alexi Boyd, chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, it’s a similar story: “From people like restaurant and catering and hairdressing and master grocers all the way through to accountants, everyone is experiencing just this huge issue with worker shortages. People are either waiting for test results, or they’re a close contact with a family member, or they’ve tested positive themselves.”

She says increasingly businesses are closing their doors. “And in this shadow lockdown wave, businesses are on their own, because government assistance like JobKeeper and JobSaver payments has been withdrawn. A lot of it [government assistance] was linked to there actually being an official lockdown in place, to areas being declared hotspots. Now, officially nobody’s in a lockdown.”

The fact that people are behaving as though they are should come as no surprise, says Dr Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Centre for Future Work.

“It should be obvious that a healthy economy requires healthy people,” he says. “Healthy people to get out of bed and go and do their jobs, and healthy consumers to go out and spend the money they made at their job. That’s a no-brainer. But our politicians forgot that. They forget the human dimension of all economic activity.”

Stanford says politicians reopened the economy at the behest of a “dangerously self-interested and short-sighted” business community.

“From the start of the pandemic, every time a health restriction was proposed business leaders complained about it, saying it was an overreaction, saying it would hurt the economy, saying it would damage their profits,” he says. “They could not see … that the worst thing for their business wasn’t the health restrictions. It was the continuing, mutating pandemic, which undermined demand, undermined confidence, and devastated the economy.”

There are signs that realisation now is dawning. Some of the businesses that wanted a relaxation of the rules are finding it hasn’t helped. But it is largely too late.

As the head of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said last week: Australians are paying for the “let it rip strategy” adopted by most Australian governments, “led by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet but cheered on by the prime minister”. They did not heed warnings from the health experts that even if Omicron proved to be mild, the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals.

The issue for the economy is cascading. One crisis triggers another and almost none can be resolved until they all are. Take the trucking industry as a starting point.

David Smith runs a small haulage company based in Tumby Bay, near Port Lincoln, in South Australia. He’s been in the business for 45 years and employs about 60 staff, mostly moving product for the agriculture, aquaculture and resource sector. He is also chair of the Australian Trucking Association, the peak body representing 50,000 businesses and 200,000 people, moving two billion tonnes of freight a year.

Smith says he has never seen the supply chain, and particularly the food chain, running so inefficiently. The issues start before produce reaches his trucks and continue after they are meant to be unloaded. “You’ve got shortages of staff, right from picking fruit on farms through to the packing sheds, and then to the local truck driver, who gets it from that packing through to distribution centres [DCs]. Then you face a DC that’s understaffed. Then, on the other side of the building where all the trucks lined up to then distribute to the stores, you’ve got a lack of drivers to service that side of it.”

Smith estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of drivers are currently off work because of Covid-19. They are either infected or quarantining. He says, “It’s a bit of a nightmare.”

Nick McIntosh, the national assistant secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, says that by removing the close contact isolation rules, the government had deliberately exposed workers to illness, “detonating a virus explosion in transport yards”.

He says there are examples of workers being “pressured to drive trucks and buses while lightheaded and infectious, close contacts told not to bother testing, and workplaces and equipment not cleaned after workers test positive. This is what happens when the prime minister stands up and calls for workplace safety to be diminished.”

These are the decisions that knock on down the supply chain. Last week, Smith says, his company was contracted to move a B-double truck of cattle to an abattoir in Victoria. About 400 kilometres down the road he got a phone call saying the truck needed to be turned around. “The abattoir had just been shut down.”

Another company he knows was contracted to move more than 100 B-doubles of produce to Sydney, but could muster only about two-thirds of the necessary drivers. The rest of the stock never made it to the supermarket shelves.

“I know one big supermarket chain last week were 58 per cent down on their DC workforce,” he says.

Smith was one of those who welcomed the decision to remove some Covid-19 restrictions, and is frustrated by the fact that different states have different testing requirements. He says the key to making the current system work – free access to rapid antigen tests – is missing.

“You need a lot of RATs, and there’s not a lot available, particularly if, like me, you’re rural based. It’s plain and simple, very difficult.”

The government says more testing supplies are coming within weeks and there are some hopeful signs the Omicron wave may be peaking. No doubt Scott Morrison is hoping that by May, when the election happens, the shadow lockdown has passed, too, and Australians are spending the $230 billion in extra bank deposits they’ve amassed since March 2020 and last November.

But Smith has doubts. “I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that we’re all going to get it and it’s probably going to run through to late this year.”

Hopefully, he’s wrong. But the experience of the past two years shows you can’t predict the course of this pandemic. And you certainly can’t fix the problem by redefining it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Tracing the ‘nightmare’ reality of the shadow lockdown".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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