The Australian Livestock Export Council (ALEC) has urged the West Australian government to reconsider any plans to turn back cargo vessels travelling from Indonesia as the south-east nation grapples with a spike in COVID-19 infections.
- Mark McGowan says the state may impose tighter protocols on shipping companies stopping in Indonesia
- Four merchant ships have arrived in WA waters this month with COVID-infected crew after making stops in Indonesia
- Livestock leaders have urged the government to keep trade with WA’s most important trading partner open
The comments came after Premier Mark McGowan expressed concerns about an infection control breach that saw two unvaccinated health workers put into hotel quarantine following the transfer of three “critically ill” infected crew members off a ship berthed at Fremantle.
Six more seafarers have since tested positive on board the MV Darya Krishna — the fourth merchant ship to arrive in WA waters with infected crew after making stops in Indonesia this month.
In a press conference on Monday, Mr McGowan sparked concerns across the agricultural supply chain when he suggested ships from Indonesia could be banned from entering WA ports.
“We will turn away ships if we can, we will turn them away and send a message to the shipping companies,” he said.
“That sends a message to the shipping companies: You will lose money if you don’t deal with this situation.
Industry says trade must go on
ALEC chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said state and federal authorities had an economic and moral responsibility not to disrupt trade.
“I understand the Premier has made comments about potentially banning vessels from Indonesia,” he said.
“That would be a very concerning outcome if that was to occur — not only for Australian agricultural commodities, but also for our friends in Indonesia.
“This is a time of need in their country, deeply affected by COVID at the moment, and Australia plays a role in fulfilling their food security needs.
The issue has also put the WA farming community on edge weeks after COVID protocol was breached in Geraldton when a sick seafarer on bulk carrier MV Emerald Indah was taken ashore for treatment.
The ship which had been sent from Indonesia to collect 50,000 tonnes of wheat, was turned away empty by Mr McGowan after a crew member tested positive for COVID-19.
Pastoralist and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said further refusals to load vessels from Indonesia would damage diplomatic relations with one of WA’s most important trading partners.
“This is an epicentre of the virus — it is absolutely crucial that we don’t allow the virus into our country,” he said.
“If you are aware of what the risks are and you put the processes in place to make certain that we don’t allow the virus to come through, this has to be doable.”
Protocols in place
According to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, Australian ports recorded 26,179 cargo vessel arrivals in 2020.
Approximately 15 of those vessels had COVID-19 cases on board.
About 600 port calls were made in Australia by cargo ships that sailed from or stopped in Indonesia in 2020.
The department said there was no evidence of transmission from a commercial vessel to Australian port workers or the broader community.
Mr Harvey-Sutton said there had been strict shipping protocols put in place to protect communities from COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic.
“Exporters have a run contactless supply chains in terms of their vessels, docking and discharging the cattle,” he said.
“There’s no need for crew on a vessel to disembark or land-based staff to come on board.
A spokesperson said the Premier had written to the Prime Minister last week about tightening protocols with shipping companies.
They said the state government was considering all options to minimise risk and keep West Australians safe.
Support for seafarers
Mr Harvey- Suttons said any proposal that included reintroducing a 14-day quarantine period for vessels would be disastrous for agricultural supply chains, given a voyage from Indonesia could take as little as four days to the north of the state.
He said authorities should be offering better support to seafarers who service Australian ports.
“I hold the view they’re the forgotten heroes of the pandemic, because they’ve kept global trade going,” Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
“There are still crews that have not disembarked their vessels since the pandemic started.
“I think we should be doing more rather than marginalizing these crews because they may be unwell on a vessel, we should be contemplating what we can do to assist them.”
Earlier this week the chief executive of Shipping Australia Melwyn Noronh said some ports in the United States were offering foreign crews vaccines and called on Australia to do the same.
There are 10 active COVID-19 cases being monitored by WA Health, including one in hotel quarantine, three in hospital linked to the MV Darya Krishna and six on onboard another vessel the MV BBC California also berthed in Fremantle.