Australia’s interstate and urban transport routes are often described as the arteries of the nation.
But in a pandemic, these arteries are not only essential to the movement of people and goods from one spot to another, they also can potentially transmit deadly diseases from town-to-town and state-to-state.
Protecting our transport routes, and the people who work on them, should be an absolute priority of national response to the pandemic, and a key element of the vaccine rollout strategy.
18 months into the pandemic, it seems that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his senior ministers still don’t get it.
There are many serious problems in the rollout strategy, but they can be summarised as supply, priority, distribution, and incentives.
Supply naturally must come first - we can’t have a vaccine program without vaccines. Here the mistakes have been manifest, including an over-reliance on Astra Zeneca.
We’re told that more vaccines are on their way, including the Moderna vaccine. Let’s hope that the speed of the rollout can be picked up during the second half of this year. After all, it really is a race.
Secondly, we need to start prioritising people who need to be vaccinated urgently. The current “Hunger Games” approach to vaccination is a mess, and too many people who need to be immunised now are being put onto waiting lists.
Rail, tram and bus workers, for example, should have been placed in a high-priority bracket from day one.
In public transport, our members are often in close contact with thousands of people every day.
Mandatory mask wearing has reduced the risk but not eliminated it, and physical distancing will always be a challenge on trains, trams, buses and platforms.
We’ve now been through phases 1a, 1b and 2a of the vaccine rollout, and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt still refuses to give transport workers priority status.
If our cities are to come back to life, then our public transport workers simply must be fully vaccinated first.
Similarly, our freight transport workers are unsung heroes of the pandemic. They continue to keep our national supply chains moving through extremely challenging times.
These workers are making sure the country’s minerals get to port. They are making sure Australia’s grain farmers can get their grains to market. And they are making sure our local supermarkets are stocked with essential goods.
Workers in interstate rail services, however, must work under isolation-bubble conditions. They go from isolation in their trains to isolation in their barracks.
When they return home, they are often required to abide by strict rules limiting their ability to engage with family, friends and their communities – even when their home towns and cities are not in lockdown.
The cumulative impact of living under these restrictions for month after month should not be underestimated. The mental health of our freight members is now a major concern for our union.
I cannot understand why interstate freight workers, who have to travel across state borders, have not been given priority vaccine access. It is not just baffling, it is negligent.
Thirdly, we have to turn the distribution model upside down.
Instead of passively waiting for people to come to vaccine hubs, government should be proactively getting out into workplaces and getting jabs into arms.
This is especially important in industries such as aged care and transport, where we need to immunise workers as soon as possible.
And finally, we need a mature approach to incentives to encourage people who are hesitant about getting vaccinated. Cash incentives, as proposed by Anthony Albanese, should absolutely be on the table.
Equally, workers in industries such as transport who are currently subject to tight restrictions on their activities should get some reward or payoff for being fully vaccinated.
Easing restrictions on fully-vaccinated workers and allowing them to get back to a more normal life would not only act as an incentive, it would help address the psychological burden they have been carrying for the length of the pandemic.
All of these problems have solutions. The Prime Minister, however, is notorious for avoiding responsibility and refusing to acknowledge mistakes.
His instinct is to distract attention and deflect blame.
Now, however, is not the time for such behaviour. The stakes are too high. We desperately need mature, adult leadership from our political representatives.
In the rail, tram and bus industries, employers and unions are offering to be part of a national partnership to speed up the vaccination process.
In fact, employers are crying out for the Federal Government to get on board and help them to vaccinate their workforces.
Likewise, the RTBU is ready, willing and able to be part of a coordinated and unified national response. We want to protect our members, their families and communities from this disease.
But first we need a Federal Government that’s prepared to accept help, and a Prime Minister who is prepared to put the public interest before his own political vanity.
This opinion piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald on Thursday 12 August 2021.
Mark Diamond is the National Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU).