AUSTRALIA is an island nation and our ports act as a gateway to the world, facilitating the daily trade of everyday goods, food and beverages, and critical supplies into our nation. They also connect our exporters with global marketplaces.

Over the past months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, the critical importance of our ports, freight and supply chains has never been more apparent. In NSW, our key trade gateways at Port Botany and Port Kembla have remained open and operating 24/7 to continue the flow of goods to support everyone in the state. To put this into perspective, at Port Botany we handle around 99% of NSW’s container trade, which means if you live in Sydney, nearly half (42%) of all goods in your household (including food and beverages) have arrived in a container through the port.

Adapting to COVID-19’s early challenges

Overall, the ports, freight and supply chains have been remarkably resilient, and have continued to adapt to meet the short-term challenges presented by the pandemic.  Given China is an important trading partner (responsible for around 40% of container imports and 20% of container export volumes in NSW), we experienced some disruptions to our usual trade flows as a result of actions being taken within China to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus. However, with the re-opening of China and resumption of manufacturing and logistics operations throughout China in March, we have since seen a return to a more regular pattern of container vessels calling at Port Botany in recent months.

Year to date, as at May (11 months) our FY20 total container volumes are down 6.4% on the prior year’s volumes, which in relative terms is a strong position given what’s happening around the world. Ships continue to arrive regularly at Port Botany and Port Kembla, carrying supplies including food, beverages, retail and construction goods and manufactured items as well as dry bulk, general cargo and bulk liquid imports of petrol, LPG and chemicals, with minimal disruption. Importantly, unlike many industries which have had to stand down their people, during this time our port workers have remained in employment, working around the clock to facilitate our trade needs.

NSW trade trends during the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 – May 2020)

Some interesting trade trends in NSW as a result of COVID-19 include:

•             Containerised food and beverage imports increased 2% in NSW compared to the same period last year, likely due to increased consumption of long-shelf life food products which were in high demand in supermarkets during the peak of COVID (eg imported rice and pasta).

•             Containerised chemical imports increased 13% compared to the same period in the year prior, due to strength in demand for chemicals feeding DIY activities and cleaning products.

•             The import of bulk liquids such as acetone increased by 56% compared to the same period last year due to high demand for cleaning products and hand sanitiser.

•             The export of bulk liquids such as ethanol increased by 50% between Mar-20 and April-20, most likely in response to global demand for alcohol (many countries have reported a spike in alcohol consumption as lock down occurred) and hand sanitiser (ethanol feeding into the production process).

•             Bulk liquid imports of diesel fuel increased 10% compared to the same period in the year prior, likely due to the increased movement of freight vehicles delivering goods around the state including to supermarkets and increased agricultural demand for diesel (due to pick up of agricultural activity following recent rainfall),

•             By comparison, unleaded fuel imports decreased by 11% compared to the same period last year as people started working from home and reduced travel demand.

Working together fosters innovation

Keeping our ports and supply chains operational during this time has been critical to supporting NSW and Australia. Our focus has therefore been on working together with all parties to ensure the safe operation of these essential services.

To cope with COVID-19, port operators moved early to implement processes and introduce new measures that would safeguard critical port workers. Given these roles are specialised, the emphasis was on keeping teams and individuals safe from cross contamination. New measures were also introduced to replace traditional face-to-face document exchange processes with digital processes.

An interesting example of innovation in this area is a project we are now working on to transform the paper-based and face-to-face ship-to-shore safety checklist process, that’s required for vessels at our Bulk Liquids Berth in Port Botany, to a digital portal arrangement with reduced face-to-face interaction. Prior to COVID-19, the form was completed in person on board the ship with representatives of multiple parties including the vessel master, terminal operator and the Port Authority of NSW. Now in development, this project promises to deliver productivity improvements with workers being able to manage most of the process remotely, supported by a more robust and reliable means of exchanging and storing information.

In another pioneering effort, we have partnered with NSW Health to rollout a first for NSW, with a proof-of-concept for ‘rapid, mobile COVID-19 screening’ for port workers and ship crew at Port Botany. Delivered by health workers arriving on-site at the port, COVID-19 screening occurred with test results available in just under an hour. While it’s early days, these are important steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in port workers and to manage COVID-19 on board ships so that our ports can continue to service the people and businesses of NSW. This is a great display of the benefits that can come from industry and government partnering to quickly respond when needed.

Working together delivers productivity benefits

Positively, COVID-19 has also led to greater understanding both within the community and Government of the critical nature of our ports, freight and supply chains.

We have seen governments at all levels working alongside industry to ensure that we can continue to serve the community 24/7. For example, temporary measures such as removing curfew restrictions for freight deliveries to expedite the stocking of supermarkets and retail outlets, while within our rail networks freight trains were given greater access to the passenger rail network during what would ordinarily be restricted periods for passenger trains only.

These measures should be continued in the longer term to deliver community-wide productivity benefits, allowing trucks to supply businesses during evening periods, to alleviate pressures on the road networks during peak hours, and freight trains and passenger trains to share the network safely.

This will be especially important during the recovery phase when road congestion is likely to be exacerbated due to reduced public transport usage.

This awareness is also driving interest in careers in ports, freight and logistics as the industry is seen to provide secure employment and play an essential role in our community – and has led to a greater appreciation of the many women and men who work behind the scenes to bring us our everyday goods.