When COVID-19 hit our shores in earnest back in early March 2020, the CBD business community was ahead of Government.

While essential workplaces were quickly identified, including construction, large firms progressively abandoned the city and set up remote working systems.  Pretty soon, Martin Place was empty and there was an excuse for the near-invisible patronage numbers on the Light Rail.

Manufacturing, construction, mining, logistics, farming and the sale of essential goods (Supermarkets, Chemists and bottle shops) were deemed essential and were quick to adopt safe work practices.  Many cafes and restaurants did their best to survive with take away services while bicycle meal couriers boomed in our suburbs.

The first step was to close the international borders.  This took an immediate toll on our universities and on the student accommodation rental market place.  Hotels and services apartments were suddenly emptied (with only modest relief from the quarantine measures).

When Government closed-down retail, communal dining, pubs, funerals, conference centre functions, theatres, cinemas and all live performance, fitness centres and gyms etc – as well as massively restricting numbers on public transport, the basis for stopping the spread of COVID-19 was established. The public service was ordered to work from home. The CBD was empty.

Importantly, Australians had a crash lesson in hygiene and basic flu management.

  • Washing hands properly
  • Regularly sanitising all hard surfaces (hand rails, lift buttons and bench tops) in public places
  • Using alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • Staying home when any cold symptom is manifest
  • Reduced unnecessary touching
  • Wearing a face mask where-ever safe social distancing is not possible

These measures not only eliminated the spread of COVID-19, they produced the lowest flu transmission results on record.  It is ironic that in NSW, the hospital EDs have been empty through the COVID-winter.

All these measures give clues on how to re-start the economy, safely.

For the CBDs of Sydney to fill with people, we need to get the workforce back onto public transport, but do so in a way that avoids the problems seen in the UK, Europe and the USA.  Public transport capacity needs to increase, but it must be done safely.

There should be hand sanitiser available at every rail and metro station.

Face masks should be made mandatory on public transport – but to assist this, face masks should be handed out free of charge.

It is all very well for the Government to mandate a return to work for public servants, but if they do not allow for a return to full utilisation of public transport, this will not happen.

There should be on-going public campaigns regarding the importance of hygiene and any one with any symptoms of a cold or fever must be strongly encouraged to stay at home.  We must reverse decades of “Codral soldier-on” indoctrination.

Anyone catching a lift should be required to wear a face mask so we can safely fill the lifts back up again.  There should be hand sanitiser available outside every lift in every foyer.  This would allow for increased numbers in each lift.

With these measures in place, not only can we safely utilise our public transport system, we can also safely fill the high rise buildings in the CBD.  Ensuring safe social distancing while at the workplace will take some genuine effort – but with the goodwill of both employers and workers, this is surely possible.

All the stops were pulled early in the COVID-19 phenomenon to produce hand sanitiser – and it worked.  The same determination is needed now to focus on practical measures which will enable workplaces to re-open.

As much as everyone is looking forward to being able to travel again, our economy needs skilled immigration and it needs foreign students.  Every effort should be made to facilitate their safe entry into Australia.  This government investment in hotel quarantine measures would deliver a significant economic return for Sydney and Australia.  Such a move would be a welcome stimulus for our universities, for student accommodation, for retail and restaurant trade (provided they all maintain and implement COVID-safe working plans).

A regular and massive supply of fresh face masks and hand sanitiser from government and industry will allow our workplaces to progressively return to normal.  These are practical steps towards economic recovery.

We need to learn the lessons from the UK and Europe while steadily encouraging economic activity.  With ongoing public education and campaigning, Australians have shown they can follow instructions. While there is little hope for Sydney’s Light Rail, together, we can be the envy of the world in both pandemic management and economic recovery.


By Tom Forest, CEO, Urban Taskforce