By Growcom CEO David Thomson
Some of the biggest questions surrounding business continuity in horticulture during the COVID-19 contagion have been answered.
Changes to visa programs announced by the Australian Government appear to have secured our supply of casual labour. But important pieces of this puzzle remain missing.
The very same announcement by the Australian Government over a week ago threw up new questions for which we’re only just starting to find answers. And the questions most concerning growers and governments are those about worker accommodation for the purpose of self-isolation.
First, the announcement seemed to suggest regions would be established within states, between which backpackers with a Working Holiday Maker visa would not be able to move without first self-isolating for two weeks. And that failure to comply would result in visa cancellation.
While a seemingly reasonable step from a public health perspective, this obviously raised concerns around not just worker movement and availability, but also around who would carry the burden of providing self-isolation accommodation for backpackers after their employment in a region ceased.
Latest advice from State Government is that movement restrictions across the Queensland border have had the desired effect, and that the nature of the outbreak here at this point doesn’t require regions to be established within Queensland to further control movement.
This advice should come as a great boost in confidence, for us as an industry and also as individuals. But we all need to stay focussed on the question of accommodation for the purpose of self-isolation.
We can still expect positive cases of COVID-19 on farm, and that both those infected and those in close contact with them will need to self-isolate.
Meeting new social distancing requirements has already reduced the accommodation capacity available on farm and in town. So we might anticipate meeting the increased need for accommodation driven by self-isolation, in an environment of already reduced supply, will prove challenging for many farms and regional towns.
Given the important public health outcomes from ensuring self-isolation is done properly, we would welcome leadership and investment from the Queensland Government in solving this issue, in collaboration with industry, local government and communities.
As an industry body Growcom applauds those growers who are already taking matters into their hands, not just making their own accommodation safe for workers but also putting in contingencies to enable self-isolation.
For the latest advice from the Australian Government on their changes to visa programs, including a useful FAQ, visit https://covid19.homeaffairs.gov.au/frequently-asked-questions#2.