VICTORIAN Premier Daniel Andrews has said the state’s red meat processors will stay under current COVID-19 workforce restrictions for “the foreseeable future” despite conceding they are operating “probably at their lowest risk rating ever”.
Although the Premier yesterday announced a detailed community roadmap for leaving the current statewide metropolitan and regional lockdowns, the pathway for red meat processors remains unclear and seemingly still under discussion.
The unclear State Government position on red meat processing’s COVID-19 status, despite several regional processors maintaining virus-free workplaces in areas with no or very low virus case loads, has been widely criticised.
Sheep Central understands that the Australian Meat Industry Council is still in negotiation with Agriculture Victoria and Minister for Agriculture Jaclyn Symes about what the actual settings will be for ‘heavily restricted’ meat processing facilities from next week through to the end of September and to late November.
A State Government roadmap document released yesterday stated that the seafood and meat processing sector would continue to be ‘heavily restricted’ with workforce restrictions after 11.59pm on 13 September and potentially up to November 23, without detailing what this means or how regional or metropolitan processors could gain a less restricted status.
Additionally, the documents seemed to indicate that the meat processing sector could move to a ‘restricted’ status after November 23, but again the conditions for this were not detailed.
In response to questioning at his daily COVID-19 update today, Mr Andrews said the current 33pc cut on peak workforce levels being imposed on meat processors would remain “largely in place for the foreseeable future”.
“We are in active discussions. Obviously the further into Spring you get, this is a seasonal industry, so there will be some direct impacts there,” he said.
When asked if there was a step the industry could look toward when the restrictions might change, Mr Andrews said he thought the government was still finalising some of those discussions.
“It is quite unique, so what is happening with an abattoir, a boning room that deals with lamb as we come into spring, those who might deal with veal for instance as we get right into the middle of calving season, all of those things change.
“And when I can bring that all into one complete picture I’m more than happy to come back to you,” he told a reporter.
“But we are speaking directly with beef, lamb, poultry, pork, seafood – all of them, so that we can do what’s necessary to manage the risk, but also what’s necessary to keep the shelves stocked, not necessarily with necessary with every product you want, but with the products you need.
“And I want to thank people across that industry for the work they’ve done,” he said.
“We’ve seen standards have lifted, compliance has lifted.
“Those high-risk workplaces are operating probably at their lowest risk rating ever and that’s why we’ve not seen further outbreaks,” he said.
“But we can’t be complacent there, we’ve got to keep going.
“When I can paint a more complete picture on that I am more than happy to come back.”
In today’s update, Mr Andrews said he understood a lot of businesses, sectors and peak bodies did not get the news they wanted yesterday.
“I understand that and I want to be really clear about this – it’s not just about profits, it’s about their people as well , they are concerned about all of those things.
“If we could have provided a different series of steps, more things open faster and done that safely, then of course that’s what we would have done.
Mr Andrews said the government this week would continue to consult with a very wide range of businesses, “particularly those worst affected by these necessary steps” about the types of assistance needed. He said the roadmap would mean 101,000 workers returning to work, but did not detail if this included in the processing sector.
When asked today if the roadmap plan could be changed depending on industry feedback, Mr Andrews said: “this plan will be driven by the data and it will be driven by the doctors and there is no other way.”
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson said AMIC continued to support the Victorian Farmers Federation in seeking a reduction to the workforce restriction cut to 20pc as well as site-by-site risk assessment and not a blanket application of restrictions.
“As soon as we can get some certainty from this government we will then put out a statement,” he said.
Victorian Farmers Federation Livestock Group president Leonard Vallance said the State Government should have spelt out what the ‘heavily restricted’ and ‘restricted’ status labels meant.
“It’s a bloody joke.
“The government is incomplete disarray and they’ve got the spin doctors out there telling the community that this disease is going to be out of our community in another couple of weeks – no, it’s not,” he said.
“We are going to have to learn to live with it.”
Mr Vallance said management of the virus should be risk-based.
He said one processor had told him that based on their current restricted kill rates and the number of feedlot lambs, sheep and cattle booked in for slaughter, the business could not buy any grass-fed or sucker lambs.
“And they are not a little abattoir – they are a major player in the state.
“They said we cannot go into the open market and buy grass-fed stock because they don’t have the ability to kill them,” he said.
Mr Vallance said this company and another he spoke to had not had a COVID-19 case in their workforce, and he knew of several other abattoirs who were “clean” of the virus.
If the workforce restrictions were not eased he predicted there would be animal welfare issues with grass seeds in lambs, overweight animals and injured stock, he said.