Jake Thompson almost misses the herds of sedans, hatchbacks and four-wheel drives that used to stall his semi-trailer on his twice-weekly trip from Sydney to Brisbane.
“It’s eerie in that you don’t ever see no cars,” he says. “It’s an odd feeling, but it’s great.”
He saves half an hour getting out of Brisbane but it makes all the difference over an 11-hour drive. That is the only thing he enjoys about coronavirus.
The past three weeks have gone at a hectic pace for Thompson. He’s afraid the next three won’t be.
Big logistics companies that normally transport frocks and socks for shuttered mall brands are moving into the grocery industry because it is one of the few parts of the economy that has kept going.
“So we’ve got this crazy saturation,” Thompson says. “We will be pushed out. And you can already see it, I mean unless you’re super tight with someone.”
Like more than half a million other businesses, the small trucking company Thompson works for, which he doesn’t want named to preserve relationships, has already registered for the JobKeeper program.
If Thompson is idled it will be a strange sensation for a man who is almost never at his mailing address. When not on the road, Thompson and his partner Kira Vinags stay in hotels, and with friends or family.
But most of the time, like many in the industry, they are in the truck.
In that way, truckers have been living as though coronavirus was rife for years.
Ben Maguire from the Australian Trucking Association says truckers have always worked long hours in their “home offices on wheels”.
The lonely lifestyle, punctuated by stops at roadhouses illuminated by glowing golden arches or the Colonel’s patrician smile, is not a healthy one.
A Monash University-led study supported by the truckers’ union and freight company Linfox found truck drivers were 13 times more likely to die at work than the average worker. They are aged over 60 on average and many of them smoke.
Thompson, at 30, and Vinags, 22 for company, are an oddity. That the couple run a Youtube channel (her idea), even more so.
There are more than 200,000 truck drivers in Australia, and the industry is overwhelmingly male, making it the most common profession for men in the country.
Even before the coronavirus, only 17 per cent of truckers’ workplace health claims came from road crashes. Physical and psychological stress and accidents made up much of the rest.
Now the pandemic is an even greater threat, one that has intensified longstanding problems.
With supermarkets going full tilt, the system is straining at its limits. On Thursday, Thompson’s loading slot at Coles was pushed back from 9pm to 2am Friday at short notice because of the volume of goods being loaded onto the semitrailers that rumble in and out of its depots. “It killed me,” he says.
Increased time pressure has stretched hours and isolation measures will reduce drivers’ contact with others in the moments they can snatch outside their trucks.
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“Without trucks, Australia stops” has long been the industry’s slogan, but it has new truth when supermarket shelves are often nearly bare.
Each week Thompson makes two return trips to from Brisbane to Sydney, 11 hours each way. He takes supermarket items north and returns south with a load of orange juice.
One of the biggest blows to the industry came in mid-March when roadhouses and rest stops closed in response to the government’s ban on dine-in service at restaurants.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack admits it was an “unintended consequence” of the ban.
“We need them to be able to stop and have a shower, go to the toilet, get a takeaway meal, have a rest, have a break. I think that was one of the unintended consequences of the blanket ban on … dining-in facilities,” he says.
Truck drivers are forced to take rest breaks under law, making truck stops critical.
After days of letters and calls from industry bodies, the national cabinet gave rest stops an exemption to let truck drivers only use their full facilities but it has taken time for the message to get through.
On Friday, the Transport Workers Union and petrol station association wrote a letter to state premiers complaining police were still shutting down roadhouses despite the exemption.
“So either the message hasn’t got through, or states are giving a contrary message because of directives from their chief medical officers,” the union’s national secretary Michael Kaine said. “Either way, it’s not working at the moment.”
The government says it has made clear roadhouses should stay open for truckers and state and territory ministers are passing on that message.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said on Saturday that “we, as a government, really want you to open up your truck stops and make sure that those truck drivers … can have their appropriate rest.”
In other quarters though, an unusual coalition of politicians are co-operating.
Glenn Sterle, federal Labor’s road safety spokesman, has been having productive conversations with Scott Buchholz, the assistant minister for freight transport.
Senator Sterle, a former truck driver, is pleased the government has lifted restrictions on roadhouses. But he is fearful of what could happen if someone in a distribution centre catches coronavirus.
“What that will mean very clearly mate is thousands of tonnes of product will not be leaving those depots,” Senator Sterle says. “Imagine that.”
Maguire, from the trucking association, says “distribution centres have been a pretty lonely, horrible place for a long time for truck drivers,” adding the industry is working to get better.
It plays on Thompson too.
“If I get sick and don’t know for 14 days and I’ve stopped at two truck stops and I’ve made a couple of other people sick, really unintentionally, you’ll wipe the whole industry out,” he says.
Buchholz, who ran a trucking company before entering politics and jokes he might be the first minister in a transport portfolio to hold a B-double truck license, has listened to Sterle’s concerns.
The Senator has been invited to the WhatsApp group Buchholz uses as the “oracle of information” to co-ordinate with industry bodies, relevant departments and other federal ministers.
“He can see the work that we’re doing and make a contribution because I suppose it’s evidence of the relationship and the respect that we have for each other,” Buchholz says.
On the distribution centres, Buchholz says larger operators have told him they are adding hundreds of extra staff to ensure trucks can be unloaded quickly and with minimal driver contact. But he has concerns smaller companies may not be able to adapt so quickly.
“I don’t think it’ll be too hard to get the top end moving,” Buchholz says. “It’ll be the smaller operators that’ll struggle, that don’t have the economies of scale, that aren’t getting the turnover.”
McCormack, for his part, says he has been in weekly hour-long conference calls with industry representatives and state and territory ministers. He’s so pleased with Queensland’s efforts to cut down on delays at the border that he is enjoying a “bromance” with the Labor government’s transport minister Mark Bailey.
Thompson, who rolled through the border on Friday, said it was “relaxed” for someone in a truck.
And so he keeps moving.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.