Fully operational packhouses and social distancing aren't exactly easy bedfellows.

But ripening kiwifruit couldn't wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to be over, and packhouses had to keep working through alert levels 4 and 3.

And they have had to make huge changes to be able to do that.

Trevelyan's managing director James Trevelyan says the packhouse on No 1 Rd was almost totally reconfigured in a very short time as New Zealand moved between alert levels.


''The team's done a fantastic job of reconfiguring the site so, for instance, the smoko room used to take 200 people, now it only takes 40.''

The temperature of everyone coming on-site is taken, all the washing systems and flow of people have changed and shifts have been staggered.

''It's all very organised, where they wash their hands and dry their hands, there is a one directional flow,'' he says.

''People don't cross each other's paths, we've punched a hole through the side of the packhouse and made another way out so we only have people coming in one door and people going out in totally separate areas so there's this big loop road going on.''

But it isn't just the physical changes.

''We've got a team continually going around, day and night, reminding people about the 2m. It's hard work and they are having some tough conversations.

''There are a lot of visuals and a lot of mentors helping people and just reminding them, because if you don't maintain a process, then it will revert to where it was and that's so true with this.''

He says occasionally, there have been people who haven't complied.


''We've had some people who think 'it's all about me' or who are saying 'why are you making me do this?' and we've unfortunately had to say good bye to some people because it's just too hard for them.''

Screens and taped walkways at one of the washing stations at Trevelyan's packhouse.
Screens and taped walkways at one of the washing stations at Trevelyan's packhouse.

Trevelyan's has also trebled the size of its cleaning team to clean high-contact areas.

As he realised the extent of the changes required, James sought guidance where he could find it.

''We have got friends in Italy and I spoke to them and I did a lot of searching online. A Japanese guy living in China did a video of what success looked like in China and there were snippets that we thought 'look at that, we can use that'. I spent a lot of time on YouTube really just searching and found some great YouTube clips.''

Staffing has also been impacted by Covid-19

''In terms of workforce, it's been a bit of a roller coaster. When we initially started life wasn't super easy and that was at level 2 and level 3.''

He says the introduction of the Government wage subsidy put some people off working, but there have been others who have come from industries hard hit by the pandemic such as logging and tourism who are now working at the packhouse.

''There were a few who said '$585, I might stay home actually I don't really need the job' - and that's their call - so with the $585 payment all of a sudden the population we thought were coming just disappeared and we had the RSEs that didn't turn up so it was a bit tough here for a while.

''Then it got a little bit easier as after a while people who stayed at home thought 'actually, I might as well go and do a job'. We've got people coming and saying they were sick of being at home and may as well do some work, and labour started to flow back in so right now we are okay - which is great.''

EastPack CEO Hamish Simson says safety requirements meant the whole way of working for packhouses was gone.
EastPack CEO Hamish Simson says safety requirements meant the whole way of working for packhouses was gone.

EastPack CEO Hamish Simson says the swift move from alert level 2 up to alert level 4 meant the company's packhouses had to move very quickly to become compliant.

''If you use a general principle that a person going to work had to be no more at risk than if they were to be staying in their bubble, then that's a very high bar we needed to conform to,'' he says.

Access to sites was controlled, all staff had a letter saying which site they were going to and methods of transport and who staff were travelling with were all monitored.

''When they arrived at work they literally had to go through a very tight regime around maintaining distancing.''

Hamish says the whole way the packhouses operate had to change.

He says most graders are designed with people working in close proximity because chutes where fruit drops on to the graders are almost all less than 2m apart.

''So that whole way of working was gone. For the first few days we were at half capacity because we couldn't open up all the drops into the graders.''

A protocol was negotiated with MPI which meant screens could be put between the drops.

''So we have literally hundreds and hundreds of screens - maybe 700 - and between every single one of those drops there is effectively a clear wall.

''Within days, as we added more of these walls of protection, we could increase our through-put and that happened steadily over about a week, week and a half.''

Hamish says the packhouses are now running at close to standard through-put.

''Most sites are getting about 95 per cent which is pretty close.''

For the packhouses the drop to level 3 meant no change, and with probably only a few weeks left of the season it is unlikely things will change under level 2.

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''It might free up a few smaller roadblocks, but I wouldn't expect with three weeks to run we'd be looking at wholesale changes. We've kind of perfected a way to operate under level 4 and level 3 so [level 2] is great for other businesses in our district and we are lucky enough to have been able to operate - but there won't be a lot of change under level 2.''

Hamish says staff have by and large worked with the changes.

''There are always going to be people that don't believe it's necessary or important. We've used persistent persuasion but by and large most have been really good.

''If you are firm on the rules, it makes people feel safe. If people are working with people who aren't following the rules, then it makes people nervous, and that's not what you want - so you have the real sticklers to the rules and that makes everyone feel safe.''