Covid-19, or the coronavirus, has landed in New Zealand, with the first case identified as I write this. By the time this magazine hits the shelves the likelihood is that there will be many more cases, and the global outbreak may have been elevated to the level of a pandemic. Without a doubt, the spread of Covid-19 is a serious situation and not something that can be ignored. The Otago University School of Medicine has suggested that up to 40% of New Zealanders could contract the virus here over winter, which could result in as many as 10,000 deaths. By comparison, normal strains of the flu lead to around 500 deaths annually. Amidst the understandable public concern that this creates, it has been extremely disappointing to see some of the hysteria promoted by the mainstream media.
Having major newspapers needlessly inciting panic in order to run punchy headlines does nothing to help authorities, such as the Ministry of Health, which has been doing a fantastic job dealing with the outbreak. The rapid spread of the virus presents two main risks to New Zealand road freight transport businesses. The first is managing coronavirus risk in the workplace. This is not something to be taken lightly, and as WorkSafe NZ advises, the objective is to keep employees safe and well “before thinking about the interests of the business or organisation”. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act employers are legally required to make sure they take every practical step to prevent their staff from contracting the virus.
The Road Transport Forum has set up a page on its website (www.rtfnz.co.nz/covid-19/) with practical advice for operators on how to manage the risk of the virus spreading, including how to provide safe and clean washing and waste disposal facilities, provision of protective gear, how to organise workflow, and minimise person-to-person contact. There is also advice on what to do in the event of a suspected infection. The road transport industry is experiencing considerable business interruption problems. Resulting from the inertia in the global freight network – imports not arriving, exports not being allowed to leave New Zealand or enter overseas ports – the long-term consequences for businesses could long outlive the initial health crisis. RTF has formally requested government, both ministers and agencies, help alleviate the situation road transport businesses are facing by removing stand-down periods for benefits for those workers affected by the economic downturn from Covid-19.
We have also asked that tax breaks be provided to operators and contractors who will struggle to meet upcoming tax payments. We have gone right to the top because operators are telling me how serious things are getting. A government support package has been announced; however, we believe this has been a bit slow in arriving. One of the issues for operators is where to go for relevant and up-to-date information. The government response, which has focused on the health side of things, was a bit slow when it came to providing information to businesses on what to do and what help was out there. A good place to keep on your daily watch list is the www.business.govt.nz website, which is regularly updated with advice for businesses, including what they need to know with regards to the tax relief available, as well as Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice on travel, and employers’ obligations when it comes to health and safety. RTF will continue to distribute all relevant and up-to-date information through its associations and out to members as it is received.
The reality is that what we are experiencing now in terms of the impact to the economy is just the start. The impact from Covid-19 could last for many months, even if the threat from the virus itself dissipates. This is something that operators should be preparing themselves for, and as well as accessing government assistance, I would recommend discussing options with your bank if you are facing major cashflow difficulties. Should a serious pandemic eventuate, and New Zealand be in a crisis response situation, it is likely that trucks will be a vital lifeline to distribute goods and medical supplies around the country. At the RTF we are readying ourselves to help with communication between government agencies managing the crisis response and operators. Our associations will also have a critical role to play, as it is vital that information is passed on to members in a timely and coordinated way. Finally, I can assure you that the RTF is doing all it can to help operators through this difficult time and we will continue to push the government to provide assistance to our industry as the medical and economic impacts of coronavirus become clearer.