Building bridges: business and government respond to secure medical supplies

Flights loaded with medical equipment urgently needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are set to depart China for Australia in the coming days, after a scramble to secure shipping and logistics.

The business community rallied after it was revealed on Sunday that Australia was losing access to urgently needed medical supplies because of restrictions on shipping and foreign governments paying high prices upfront.

Australia needs to shore up its medical supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE) to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit:Mike Segar

Equinox Medical chief executive Philip Crealy said a number of companies – including logistics and freight specialists, airlines and management consultancies – had contacted him since Sunday to offer help.

He needed to ship more than 30 tonnes of hospital gowns, face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and COVID-19 diagnostic tests destined for Australian hospitals and aged care homes.

Meanwhile, the federal government on Wednesday announced a coordinated effort to be led by former Toll Group managing director Michael Byrne.

The announcement from the Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham provides $110 million to set up the International Freight Assistance Mechanism. This will help Australia's food producers export to key overseas markets – initially China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UAE – with return flights bringing back vital medical supplies.

"This is fantastic news," Mr Crealy said. "It's exactly the way for Australia to build a bridge."

CleanSpace Respirators, an Australian manufacturer of respiratory PPE, is also having trouble sourcing parts from China. Chief executive Alex Birrell said the announcement was "promising" but she hoped the supplies would include the raw materials Australian manufacturers need.

"We are deploying to public hospitals throughout Australia for COVID-19," Dr Birrell said. "At these high volumes where the need is urgent, even small delays risk the protection of healthcare staff."

Mr Crealy said the situation in China was a "free-for-all" with foreign governments going directly to Chinese suppliers to buy medical goods, offering to overpay and pay in full upfront.

Equinox Medical now has a flight confirmed with Toll on Friday morning, to fulfil most of a five-tonne order for Northern Territory Health as well as an order for Sonic Health. It is expected Equinox's existing Chinese logistics supplier EWE Group will ship the rest on Saturday.

Mr Crealy said there was a backlog of 25 tonnes beyond that.

A Toll spokesperson said the logistics environment was "complex and challenging" because of shutdown measures in various countries. "We’re doing all we can as we work closely with Equinox to enable the movement of urgent medical supplies into Australia."

Meanwhile, Mr Crealy said UPS offered to expedite the Equinox orders and he will use them for cold-chain logistics for the diagnostic tests that require cold storage. UPS did not comment.

Mr Crealy warned the overall logistics situation continued to "deteriorate". This week the Chinese government rushed in new regulations requiring an exporter to clear extra hurdles with Chinese Customs to ensure quality control of medical goods.

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