COVID outbreak threatens to delay ocean, air shipments in Australia

A white and red Qantas plane at airport at night. Qantas has closed a warehouse because of a COVID scare.

New measures to contain a surge of COVID-19 cases in Victoria, Australia, have resulted in the continued closure of Qantas Airways’ two freight terminals at Melbourne airport and concerns of logistics bottlenecks for the port and delivery businesses.

Qantas Freight’s Melbourne cargo warehouses will remain closed until at least midnight Thursday, the company said on its website. The airline’s cargo arm hasn’t provided a reason for the temporary shutdown that began two days ago, but indications are that it is responding to an infection in the workforce. 

Qantas is not accepting or releasing freight, with the possible exception of urgent domestic medical shipments. International shipments moving under the government of Australia’s emergency airfreight assistance program for exporters will be cleared Thursday at the Menzies Aviation station instead if they have already been loaded into containers by the customer. 

Under a state of emergency that goes into effect overnight, nonessential businesses must shut down. Logistics interests in Australia are trying to confirm that all import and export operations are deemed essential, warning that limiting exemptions to only certain types of businesses will result in harmful shipping delays.

The Freight & Trade Alliance, representing the supply chain sector, and the Australian Peak Shippers Association said they are warning government officials that if quarantines extend to the Port of Melbourne, 300,000 import containers could quickly stack up during the next six weeks, leading to severe congestion that impedes deliveries of food, personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

Retailers may be closed, but they still need the imported goods to make home deliveries or offer curbside pickup for online shoppers, the trade associations said in an alert to members.

“We also need these import containers to be unpacked and made available for our exporters, in particular to support our struggling agricultural sector that is expecting substantial crops this spring and are desperate to reach overseas markets,” the update said.

Warehouses and distribution centers can continue to operate at two-thirds of their normal staffing levels, but the shipper and freight forwarding groups said they are seeking to clarify whether the requirement extends to customs-bonded warehouses and other import/export facilities.

Under the rules, employers that require staff to show up at a job site must issue a worker permit. Penalties for working without a permit, or not meeting eligibility requirements, are up to $14,000 for individuals and $70,000 for businesses. On-the-spot fines of up to $1,200 and $7,000 for individuals and businesses, respectively, are also possible for noncompliance with the worker permit scheme.

The FTA and Australian Peak Shippers Alliance said they are engaging the government to allow warehouses and cold-storage facilities that implement plans for COVID safety to operate. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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