Is the Queensland water sector ready for a COVID incursion?

Is the Queensland water sector ready for a COVID incursion?

Is the Queensland water sector ready for a COVID incursion?
Date: 18-Nov-2021

The short answer is no. The complete answer is more complicated.

Outside SEQ, public water and sewerage services in Queensland are primarily provided by local governments. Councils have been bracing for COVID since the height of the pandemic and have undertaken many preparations. This includes the Water Service Provider (WSP) sections of councils, many of which have implemented multiple measures and plans in readiness for an incursion of the virus in their community. With over 370 urban supplies across the state, this has been no mean feat.

Through good management, and good luck, most regional communities have so far avoided the pandemic. Hot spots have flared over the past year, but lockdowns and management measures have meant that there have been only a handful of incidents, primarily in SEQ, where this has had an impact on the provision of water and sewerage services. These have been quickly managed by diverting staff, sometimes between organisations, to cover for people who could not work because of COVID. 

Availability of Operators, the experts in charge of making sure that water and sanitation services continue safely in all those communities, remains the primary risk during a COVID outbreak even today. At the start of the pandemic qldwater and LGAQ worked with a taskforce convened by the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water (DRDMW) and with experts from across the sector to form procedures focussing on two key state-wide risks. 

The first was ongoing provision of chemicals and parts, many of which came from other countries that are of course also dealing with COVID. This work is ongoing at a national level, but the supply chains have been reinforced and no longer pose a short-term problem. 

The second risk, that of back-filling essential workers impacted by COVID, was a more difficult problem.

Early in 2020, qldwater formed a working group with Urban Utilities and several private companies which could have been in a position to supply trained relief operators or other emergency support. There was a lot of cooperation and good will but also recognition that in a widespread outbreak, large providers would likely be short-staffed themselves and it would also be unwise to send staff into a hotspot without adequate precautions. National standing arrangements for staff-sharing during emergencies were also inapplicable because of border closures and similar or worse COVID problems in other states. qldwater developed a protocol for backfilling staff within Queensland in case of isolated hotspots and DRDMW considered the idea of a fighting fund to assist in case of such an emergency. 

Fortunately, these procedures have not needed to be tested. There are over 70 council-owned WSPs across the State, none of which have surplus workforce. Indeed, the majority suffer from chronic under-resourcing and there are numerous towns where a skeleton crew or even a single person is responsible for maintaining water and sanitation services.  Councils are renowned for their cooperation and mutual-support generosity during emergency events like cyclones, floods and fires, but in a pandemic there are simply not enough trained operators to go around.

All of the planning and procedures put in place over the past year will help but are hampered by the lack of recognition of the strategic risk by those in the Queensland Government responsible for decisions around COVID and essential services. qldwater and DRDMW have been lobbying for some months to have water and sewerage operators recognised as a front-line workforce acknowledging their critical role in maintaining public health. An important exemption would be to allow vaccinated individuals to keep working even during a lockdown or if they are secondary contacts, but there is no process to address this.

COVID overload means that the water sector must wait in line, like all the other industries asking for recognition. Unfortunately, all other industries and the communities they serve are fully reliant on safe and secure supply of clean drinking water and critical sanitation services. 

Other Australian states have introduced rules and even legislation recognising key utility staff as critically essential workers and are dealing with the difficult problems of maintaining services during lockdowns and how this will be affected by vaccination procedures and rules. These are difficult discussions in Queensland, particularly in areas that have not yet been directly impacted by the virus. 

With the impending opening of borders, the Premier has reiterated that the Delta strain will rapidly spread in Queensland. Vaccination is the key solution to maintaining essential services as we move from COVID-free to a ‘new-normal’, but many regional towns still have low rates of vaccination. Hot spots are inevitable and if there are too many simultaneously, water and sewerage services will be impacted adding to an already increased risk to community health. 

It is time that we worked together to better prepare for maintenance of Queensland’s essential services as we join the rest of the world in accepting an ongoing presence of the virus. There is no risk in giving this some important attention. COVID has exposed vulnerabilities around critical worker redundancy which have existed for a long time – we are past due to embrace the opportunity it has provided to address them.

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