Countries and States may shut borders, but freight and logistics cannot be interrupted

26 March 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to spread and both State and Federal Governments announcing changes to their response policies daily, there has been understandable concern about the continued operation of the supply chain domestically and internationally.

The States and Territories, with the exceptions of Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT, have announced border closures with exceptions in place for “essential workers” and “essential services”. The Federal Government has also announced multi-staged restrictions on the operation on non-essential business such as pubs, clubs and restaurants in the Stage One restrictions and the further restrictions on indoor gatherings over 10 people, group sporting events, religious services, weddings and funerals in the Stage Two restrictions.

With the implementation of these restrictions the key term to be aware of is “essential services” and the central question for freight and logistics providers is,

Is freight an “essential service”?

To date, the Stage One and Stage Two restrictions have taken the approach that certain businesses and activities are “non-essential”. The border closures have, however, provided some further guidance on what services are considered to be “essential services”. For example, South Australian Premier Steven Marshall stated when announcing that State’s border closure that exemptions would be made to “maintain health, the food supply chain, and the state’s economic needs” with exemptions in place for freight to also cross the border. The other States have taken similar approaches.

Industry associations have been actively participating in consultation with Government on the restrictions, with the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) maintaining a continued effort to ensure that Governments preserve exemptions from the ever increasing restrictions for freight and logistics as essential services. To date, the State and Federal Governments have been receptive to this advice and are acknowledging that freight and logistics are vital to the continued supply of food, clothing, medicines and other goods to the Australian market. However, while the ALC has advocated for a “wave through” approach at the borders for freight and logistics in order to avoid delays, it appears that the States and Territories are erring on the side of caution and imposing some requirements for interviews or inspection at the borders. The practical aspects of the border closures are however, still being finalised by the States and Territories and are, of course, subject to change as a result of the evolving situation.

Importantly, the delivery of goods to supermarkets has been facilitated by the removal of curfews which prevented 24 hour delivery by State and Territory Governments. The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) has also announced that it has removed amenity restrictions from permits for three months to support the movement of freight. Safety and access related permit conditions will, however, still need to be adhered to. These arrangements are to be reviewed by the NHVR on 19 June 2020.

At an international level, the movement of goods via sea and air freight has also been a cause of concern. Air freight issues may arise as a result of loss of belly space in planes with the mass grounding of most commercial airline fleets however, provisions are being made for the movement of vital supplies such as medical supplies. Sea freight has also been impacted by a combination of factors including restrictions on ships which have been at sea for less than 14 days docking in Western Australia with a similar more expansive quarantine policy recently wound back by the Queensland Government. The piecemeal approach being taken by State Governments on that front has the potential to cause some confusion and disruption in shipping to Australia with Shipping Australia describing the Queensland shipping quarantine as “reckless and indefensible”.

Comments have also been made by Ports Australia and stevedoring companies to the Federal Government in relation to the formal designation of stevedoring, and associated freight and marine services as “essential services” in order to ensure that the supply of vital goods continues through Australian ports. The Prime Minister has also re-emphasised Australia’s commitment to the continued operation of global trading and the need for international supply chains to continue operating throughout this pandemic.

While the continued and uninterrupted operation of freight and logistics is essential throughout this pandemic, operators must be aware of health and safety concerns. Drivers and other staff should be well trained in health measures such as social distancing and hygiene in order to avoid even greater disruption to the supply chain as a result of staff becoming ill. Fatigue and other risk factors such as speed should also be carefully monitored with the added pressure of 24 hour deliveries and the potential for delays at the borders likely to make these risk factors even more prevalent.

The NHVR, the ALC and other industry associations are working with Governments to ensure that problems are addressed as they arise and as the situation continues to change. Freight and logistics operators and drivers are on the “front lines” of keeping the supply chain moving and are best placed to identify potential issues early. Accordingly, operators should not hesitate to seek advice and to contact the NHVR, the ALC and Federal and State Government as problems are identified.

The situation is evolving rapidly and we are continuing to update industry on changes as and when they happen.

Need our help?

As always, our Transport and Logistics team, led by Elizabeth Guerra-Stolfa, and Rigby Cooke are available to assist in any way we can and we thank all freight and logistics operators for everything they are doing in these difficult times to keep the supply chain moving.


Disclaimer: This publication contains comments of a general nature only and is provided as an information service. It is not intended to be relied upon as, nor is it a substitute for specific professional advice. No responsibility can be accepted by Rigby Cooke Lawyers or the authors for loss occasioned to any person doing anything as a result of any material in this publication.

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