Medicines ‘at risk’ in port crisis
David Marin-Guzman

Cancer physicians and pharmaceutical companies have raised concerns the crisis on the waterfront could result in medicine shortages as talks between the parties over a peace deal drag on.

Patrick Terminals and the Maritime Union of Australia were locked in 11th-hour talks late Wednesday to hash out a resolution to end the industrial action that is resulting in supply chain delays of two to three weeks.

Patrick CEO Michael Jovicic said he had not been contacted by shipping lines to unload medical containers. Louie Douvis

The union has offered to roll over the existing workplace agreement with a 2.5 per cent pay rise but the offer is understood to be just one of many discussed as parties maintained hope an agreement could be reached.

Even with a deal, the medical industry has raised concerns about the longer-term effects of the crisis as overseas manufacturers are refusing orders for much-needed medicine due to uncertainty over shipments.

Major pharmaceutical wholesaler Arrotex said it had 25 containers sitting on the water outside Port Botany for two weeks, with each container holding up to six months worth of medicine including for cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and breast cancer.

But the company says its biggest issue is not those delays but the upstream problems the crisis is causing with its overseas manufacturers.

A spokeswoman said manufacturers had refused 10 orders for medicines already in short supply during the pandemic because of uncertainty around delivery and payment caused by the port congestion.

“They are now refusing to load ships with medicines because of the concern that Australia will not receive them as expected,” she said.

Arrotex chief executive Dennis Bastas wrote to the federal government this week to warn that the crisis threatened to cause a dramatic increase in drug shortages that “could have a devastating impact on people’s health and threaten to overwhelm the hospital system”.

He said the company expected the issues with overseas manufacturers to result in four-to-six -week delays in delivery times within a week, which could soon snowball to 10- to 12-week delays.

The president of the Private Cancer Physicians of Australia, Dr Christopher Steer, on Wednesday said cancer medicines had been delayed and cautioned that they were “very sensitive to temperature change and are at risk of deteriorating if kept too long at sea, even in refrigerated containers”.

“We are deeply worried about the disruption caused to the international supply chain of cancer medicines during this pandemic,” he said.

“For any industrial dispute to now put that patient access at risk again, especially during the ongoing health crisis, is quite shocking.”

The MUA has offered to unload medical containers despite its bans on upgrades and overtime but it is unclear how easy that could be done if medical containers are mixed with other products.

Patrick Terminals chief executive Michael Jovicic said on Wednesday that no shipping companies had contacted him to urgently unload medical supplies.

Industrial Relations Christian Porter has intervened to support Patrick’s application to terminate the protected industrial action, with a hearing still set before the Fair Work Commission on Thursday.

The minister on Wednesday criticised the union’s industrial action as “misjudged” and said its 12-month roll-over offer meant the disruption could happen again in six or 12 months’ time.

“I think it would be desirable to actually conclude the three or four-year agreement and that seems to me to be sensible,” he told Perth radio 6PR.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said the union rejected Patrick’s “outlandish and baseless” delay claims and that the union made the offer to address the concerns of the broader community.

“Our proposal does not seek to modify a single word of the existing agreement, so there is no change to the arrangements that Patrick has successfully and profitably operated their container terminals under,” he said.

“If Patrick refuses this peace offer, the Australian public will be left in no doubt which party is responsible for escalating this unnecessary conflict at such a difficult time for the nation.”

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