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Why won’t Australians wear face masks on public transport?

December 9, 2020 Headline News No Comments

As the Covid-19 coronavirus runs riot overseas and vaccine makers struggle to meet demand, over seven out of 10 Australians think face masks should be mandatory on public transport – yet few passengers wear them and few state governments can be bothered to make them compulsory.

Almost 90% of Australians believe there is a moderate-to-high risk of Covid-19 transmission on the transport network, latest research commissioned by the Tourism and Transport Forum Australia (TTF) reveals.

Public health authorities recommend wearing face masks on public transport. Australian broadcaster and Covid-19 expert Dr Norman Swan says masks can help reduce transmission of coronavirus by around 70%. That’s very useful if someone catches Covid-19 while working at a quarantine hotel and then boards a bus or train – as has already happened in Sydney, though fortunately for the public, the worker wore a mask on the train.

In NSW, public transport officials have posted signs saying “Please wear a face mask on public transport” in prominent positions in trains and buses. Yet few people bother to wear masks – perhaps 5% of passengers – and nothing is done to enforce the request.

Victoria enforced wearing of masks and beat the coronavirus back. Face masks are mandatory in Victoria on public transport and when in taxis or ride share vehicles. Face masks must also be worn when inside shopping centres, including the retail stores inside the shopping centres, and large retail stores such as department stores, electronics stores, furniture stores, hardware stores or supermarkets. The masks must be carried at all times when leaving home.

The TTF report “Where to Now? Transport Systems in a ‘Covid-19 Normal’ World” was produced by TTF using data supplied by LEK Consulting and a national consumer survey of 2300 Australians conducted by MI Associates.

The report shows the significant impact of the pandemic on public transport patronage particularly during the national lockdown from March through to May, with the number of commuters travelling on the network dropping to between 10% to 30% of normal activity across our capital cities.

TTF chief executive Margy Osmond said Covid-19 had a massive impact on travel patterns across all capital cities and the effect had continued well beyond the national lockdown.

“Safety concerns have been the major barrier to getting back to pre-Covid-19 patronage levels on the network along with significant numbers of employees still working from home,” Osmond said.

“Our research shows almost 90 per cent of businesses have required their staff to work from home in some shape or form during Covid-19 so it’s not surprising that patronage dropped so significantly especially during the initial lockdown.

“The confidence issue also emerged early in the piece with May ABS data showing 59% of Australians felt uncomfortable travelling to work by public transport as restrictions started to ease.

“Recent consumer polling conducted for TTF by MI Associates showed that trend continuing after the second wave and more extreme lockdown in Victoria and other small outbreaks in NSW and South Australia with 86% saying they believe there is a moderate to high risk of Covid-19 transmission on the transport network.

“A further 71% support the mandatory requirement to wear face masks on public transport while 61% want a public awareness campaign which highlights the Covid-19 safety measures put in place on public transport.

“It is the long-term impact of the pandemic however that is posing the most problems for public transport departments when it comes to scheduling and the drop in revenue as many people continue to work from home at least a couple of days per week and the continuing perception that public transport is a high risk for Covid-19 transmission.

“As we adapt to a ‘Covid-19 normal’ these issues will continue to challenge policymakers along with the longer-term implications of the changing face of the workplace and new travel patterns become established,” Osmond said.

Other findings of the survey include:

  • Of the major transport modes ferries were most impacted with commuter numbers dropping to 9% of normal capacity during the national lockdown.
  • Private car use was also impacted significantly with toll road data showing a drop of between 50% and 65% in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in early April.
  • Almost 75% of people working from home prefer to continue to work that way.
  • 71% of Australians support mandatory mask wearing on public transport: 84% in VIC, 74% in NSW, 59% in WA, 57% in QLD and SA, noting research conducted prior to recent Adelaide outbreak.
  • Over 86% of Australians believe public transport poses a moderate to high risk of Covid-19 transmission: 55% VIC respondents rate public transport as the highest or one of the highest risks, 48% in NSW, 47% in SA, 40% in QLD, 40% in WA.
  • 61% of Australians say there needs to be an awareness campaign to encourage use of public transport to travel again for both work and social activities: 63% in VIC, 63% in NSW, 60% in WA, 57% in QLD, 56% in SA.

Written by Peter Needham

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