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Fortescue holds off closing Pilbara mine site after contractor’s COVID-19 scare

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Flights were not going to be delayed by the development but Ms Gaines said she did not know how many of the 2000 workers at Cloudbreak may have to go into isolation at the mine while waiting for test results.

“What I’ve said throughout is that the health and safety of our team is the highest priority and if that meant we had to do something like a three-day lockdown (of the site), then that’s what we were doing and test everybody,” she said.

“That’s … not the advice we’ve been given by the health department. We need to go through the contact tracing… determine who was actually there.”

Fortescue enacted a mandatory pre-flight testing regime last year during the pandemic but it had not been in place at the time of the current incident.

The company had, however, tested and isolated anyone at work who was presenting with cold and flu symptoms.

Ms Gaines said prior to the case the company had been working with the Department of Health to get approval for pre-flight, rapid antigen testing.

The iron miner is not worried about getting into a similar situation to the Tanami gold mine – the centre of a Northern Territory Delta outbreak earlier this year – in terms of food supplies, if workers do have to isolate at Cloudbreak.

Impacts on the price of iron

Cloudbreak is part of the company’s Chichester Hub, alongside the Christmas Creek mine, which has an annual production capacity of about 100 million tonnes of ore. Fortescue is one of the biggest iron ore producers in the country.

Ms Gaines said the new case was a reminder COVID-19 was the biggest threat to all industries and had previously impacted the price of iron ore.

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“Any major disruption anywhere, whether that’s here in Australia or in Brazil, we saw it in South Africa last year when there was complete lockdown, including the mining sector, and that did have an impact on the iron ore price,” she said.

“It actually went up because there was constraint on supply.

“So I think anything that indicates some constraint on supply is probably supportive of the current pricing environment that we’ve seen for some time now.”

The vaccination situation

Ms Gaines made her comments about the new case on the sidelines of the annual Diggers and Dealers conference in Kalgoorlie, where several other presenters raised the difficulties Australia’s vaccination rollout was having on the resources sector and current skills shortage.

She said Fortescue supported the federal government’s rollout and the company was strongly encouraging staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“I agree that we don’t want to be seen to be jumping in the queue,” Ms Gaines said.

“But if there is a view that we now have adequate supply of vaccines, then I think we have a role to play in actually administering the vaccine to the broader population.”

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The Fortescue boss also noted there could be a portion of the workforce who did not plan to get vaccinated but making it mandatory would be difficult because of a skills shortage facing the industry.

“We’ve all been hearing about labour shortages, it has been a key theme recently of this conference as well,” she said.

“I don’t know what the vaccine hesitancy rate is in Australia yet, but I think we’ve got to enough of the vaccine rollout to understand what level of hesitancy there is.

“But cutting off a large portion of the workforce in this current environment also doesn’t make sense. So I just think we have to work through this.”

WAtoday understands a handful of people who have been at the annual Diggers and Dealers conference during the past three days were at exposure sites and are being tested.

The annual event welcomed 2520 delegates, its second-largest crowd on record, not including the many staff at the forum.

Diggers and Dealers forum chairman Jim Walker revealed Perth’s latest COVID-19 scare to delegates at the end of the forum’s speeches and urged them to check online for the latest exposure sites.

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