Testing, vaccine mandates create truck driver shortage

 


Thousands of Victorian truck drivers left their jobs during the pandemic, frustrated by strict COVID-19 testing regimes and vaccine mandates.

The driver exodus is stretching the state’s supply chain, leaving some trucking companies unable to recruit staff, knocking back work, and selling up their vehicles.

Interstate truck driver Simon Lenehan said it was difficult keeping up with the rigorous COVID-19 testing regime.

Interstate truck driver Simon Lenehan said it was difficult keeping up with the rigorous COVID-19 testing regime. CREDIT:SCOTT MCNAUGHTON

Victoria’s peak trucking association estimates about 10,000 truck drivers – including more than 2000 who cross state borders – have exited the industry since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Victorian Transport Association chief executive Peter Anderson said the driver shortage started before the pandemic and was exacerbated by COVID-19.

He said some drivers found it difficult to follow inconsistent and ever-evolving rules that left them stranded at borders or at risk of hefty fines, and some left their job because vaccines were to become mandatory.

Interstate drivers were required to be tested for the virus every three days, he said, often sacrificing non-work time to do so.

Education Minister James Merlino announces that rapid antigen tests will help halve the isolation period for school students.

“The intrusion of having something shoved up in the back of your brain every three days is a physical impost that is just unbearable to many people, and they’ve walked away,” Mr Anderson said.

“We think we lost between 5-7 percent of our interstate truck drivers, and they won’t be replaced. And 3-5 percent of local drivers because of the pandemic, vaccinations, and COVID rules.”

Victoria no longer requires its visitors to be tested, but other states still require Victorians to be tested within three to seven days of their entry. The vaccine mandate for freight workers comes into force on November 26.

Scott Guthrie, manager at Mt Noorat Freighters, which transports stockfeed and grain across the country, said the driver shortage was the worst he had seen and warned: “It’s only getting worse.”

The company sold several trucks in recent months because it couldn’t find new drivers to replace those who left during the pandemic.

“We’ve had ads in for months and months and haven’t had new drivers come on board,” Mr Guthrie said. “We’re knocking work back because we haven’t got the people to do it.”

Truck driver Simon Lenehan, who regularly travels between Geelong and NSW, said it was difficult to keep up with the testing demands because there was a lack of available testing sites appropriate for large vehicles.

He said truck testing sites along the Hume Highway were only open between 6pm and 6am, and testing sites in his hometown, Colac, were open for limited hours, only by appointment.

“Getting tested every three days has made it hard,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to do it.”

Mr. Anderson called on the government to allow drivers to administer rapid antigen tests – which are now approved for use in Australia – at home.

The do-it-yourself kits are faster but less accurate than a standard test. They are meant to be used largely as a screening tool. On Monday, the state government announced the quickfire tests would be used to help schoolchildren get back to their classrooms faster after a COVID case was identified.

Mr Anderson warned of serious repercussions to the supply chain if the driver shortage was left unresolved.

Driver salaries would increase – a cost that would be passed on to consumers, he warned, while deliveries of goods would face increased delays.


She said a “sustainable” testing regime would be needed long term, but strict rules would probably remain. 
Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology Catherine Bennett said, despite a large number of daily truck trips, the freight industry was “remarkably successful” in avoiding large outbreaks, noting drivers were masked, often slept in their trucks, and often completed deliveries outside.

Rapid antigen tests would probably play a role down the track for drivers, she said.

A government spokeswoman said rapid antigen tests were used as a screening tool only as they were less sensitive at detecting COVID-19 than PCR-based tests and could vary in performance.

“Getting vaccinated is our ticket out of the pandemic and will be key to keeping supply chains open and supporting the economic recovery,” the spokeswoman said.

“We’re grateful for the work the freight sector and businesses have been doing to support all Victorians during the pandemic.”

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