PRESSURE on the freight sector continues to intensify as staff shortages disrupt national food supply lines, leaving customers in the lurch.

The rapid spread of the omicron variant has been eroding Australian supply chains as many freight and transport workers had been forced into self-isolation by COVID regulations.

Testing and isolation measures are changing for freight workers across some states, including Queensland and NSW, following a national cabinet decision to scrap regular testing for truck drivers.

The decision was driven by the need to keep food supplies moving, but several new and lingering challenges are threatening to carry the chaos into the coming weeks.

Lack of RATs

For example, rapid antigen testing requirements are vital to keeping freight and transport staff at work in Victoria, but there are reportedly not enough tests available to sustain this mandate.  

“There’s no supply,” Container Transport Alliance Australia director Neil Chambers told DCN.  

“They’ve made a public health order from a government point of view that the employer can’t abide by because the RAT tests aren’t available.

“We’ve been caught short again during this pandemic on a lack of planning.”

Victoria has also introduced a rule requiring freight workers to receive a third dose of vaccine, but there is concern the mandate will increase staff shortages if there is hesitation or refusal to get the jab.

Mr Chambers said challenges arising from shifting rules and mandates are having significant impacts on the sector.

“Anywhere between 5% and up to 50% of the workforce is being disrupted by this,” he said.

“It’s putting a huge strain on the supply chain, and in fact … many of the transport companies reiterated that it’s probably the worst they’ve ever seen it in terms of staff shortages and the absenteeism.”

Poultry problems

Critically, food distribution companies and customers on supply lines are also experiencing staff shortages, notably leading Australian poultry producer and Ingham’s.

The company has reported significantly low levels of staff availability due to the spread of omicron, impacting production volumes and distribution capabilities.

“The operational and trading difficulties have resulted in significant operational inefficiency, additional costs and the temporary suspension of a number of Ingham’s products,” Ingham’s CEO and managing director Andrew Reeves said.

“Ingham’s is working closely with our customers, and we are focused on supplying as much product as possible to customers while the current disruption continues.”

Mr Reeves said the recent announcements from federal and state governments on isolation rules for essential workers in food distribution, which includes transport workers, would help alleviate staff shortages.

“As operating conditions begin to stabilise, we expect our production capacity to recover relatively quickly to meet customer and consumer demand,” he said.

“We will continue to closely manage our working capital and inventory and seek to implement initiatives to minimise the financial and other impacts of COVID through the second half [of FY22].”

When will it end?

Mr Chambers said the onslaught of problems throughout the transport sector and supply chains may not subside for some time.

“There’s clearly a significant impact from Coronavirus, and everyone’s anticipating from the next four to six weeks it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

“The system is pretty much at breaking point now, so we’ve got a fairly bumpy ride for at least the next few weeks.”