‘Brittle and sensitive’ supply chain impact in union dispute


One Guild leader has warned that there is a shortage of cholesterol and cancer medications due to union activity holding up shipping

Pharmacy Guild Australia Queensland Branch president Trent Twomey told the Queensland Times on Monday that “we now have drug shortages”.

The Maritime Union Association’s industrial action at the Patrick Terminal at Sydney’s Port Botany has delayed the importation of a range of medicines, reports the Times’ Clare Armstrong.

The Times reports that as of Monday, at least 40 ships were waiting “off Sydney” to unload.

“We now have drug shortages, and if I find we have drug outages, and that results in deaths, I will be putting those at the feet of the MUA,” Mr Twomey told the paper, saying the union was contributing to a “national security issue” by delaying medicines imports.

“Containers filled with major medicines are floating just off shore and even if companies have to divert to air, rail and road, that pushes the cost of freight up and ultimately that gets passed on to the consumer,” he said.

Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president George Tambassis and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt took to the airwaves to tell the public that at the current time, there is no immediate risk of medicines shortages as a result of the action… though they are concerned as to how the dispute could play out.

“The medicines supply chain is quite a brittle and sensitive supply chain,” Mr Tambassis told PM’s Linda Mottram.

“Of course, pharmacy sits right at the end of the supply chain… this particular dispute is almost at the start of the supply chain because these medicines are coming from overseas ports.”

He said that the Guild had become aware of the situation over the weekend and called for a swift resolution.

“If this dispute keeps going, it looks like there’s a backlog of ships off the coast of Sydney,” Mr Tambassis said. “That’s not a good sign because some companies might not be affected for a while – but if this thing keeps going, four to six months comes around pretty fast.

“We’ve got a global pandemic that we’re dealing with, anything could happen overseas, all these flow on effects we don’t want those for our patients to see those flow-on effects.

“Let’s sort it out and the best way to sort it out is to resolve this dispute as soon as possible.

“We just don’t want to see any medicines go out of stock.”

When asked if he was concerned about Mr Twomey’s earlier comments, Mr Tambassis said that “there’s what we call medicines shortage in pockets around Australia – it doesn’t always flow through to the whole of Australia.

“I’ve spoken to all the national organisations, I’m the national president, if there’s any issues in pockets, hopefully that’ll be resolved straightaway. But all the people I’ve spoken to today told me that there’s no critical issues today. But the concern is still there.”

He said he had been speaking with suppliers who have asked for their ships to be rerouted to Melbourne, or had started air freight, so temporary measures could be taken while the dispute continues.

He said that at the moment there were “no critical issues” and that there was no need for people to panic buy.

Health Minister Greg Hunt told 2GB’s Ray Hadley that it was “ironic” that there was now a risk to medicines supply, given that Australia had been able to “maintain the flow” into the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are good suppliers in Australia, but these medicines which come in on ship— and the vast majority of medicines do arrive by sea and they do come through Port Botany—will in some weeks, in some cases, start to see shortfalls,” Mr Hunt said.

“So the companies are trying to work around it, we’re trying to work with them, but oncology, arthritis, cardiovascular, diabetes, all of these medicines are potentially at risk.

“And it’s not just a delay, if they have to be transferred from ship to plane or other things, there’s a risk that you would have a temperature breach if they’re cold-controlled and therefore the medicines could be ruined.”

He said that, “At the moment, we’re covered because we have a really strong system of early notification and we have supplies, but if it went on for any extended period then those sorts of critical medicines would be put at risk and that’s something we want to avoid”.

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild told the AJP that its position is, “that we hope the potential risk to medicine supply chains in the coming weeks through a prolonged wharf dispute can be avoided, with the dispute being resolved as soon as possible”.

 “We have also been advised by the employer Patrick Terminals that to date, they have received no specific requests for assistance from pharmaceutical companies or distributors to expedite the handling of critical medicines that are in imminent danger of running out.

 “Should they receive such requests, they have committed to work with the MUA and their workforce to handle such containers as expeditiously as possible.”

Meanwhile the MUA, which is seeking a pay rise for its members—originally of 6%, now down to 2.5% which it says is to allow Patrick to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic—has labelled the medicines claim false and “nothing more than an attempt to use community fear to force through attacks on workplace rights”.

The union said in a statement that it had asked Patrick to identify containers carrying medical supplies so that these could be prioritised for unloading.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told reporters in Canberra that the MUA’s behaviour was “appalling”.

The Guardian reports that the PM said, “It’s not on and we will take what steps are necessary to ensure that this can be brought, I think, to a more meaningful and swift conclusion”.

However he said that he would not “pre-empt” taking military action against the MUA when reporters suggested this option.

“We’re still at a stage where I think that sort of thing would hopefully be unnecessary and that it would never come to something like that.”

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