A story of three cities: how COVID-19 lockdowns restricted traffic in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne

More than half of Australia’s population has been locked up in an effort to contain a worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

These lockdowns are making some people mentally tired and generating a lot of hostility between states, especially towards New South Wales.

ACT chief Andrew Barr and Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews have both criticized NSW leader Gladys Berejiklian for not shutting down “quick and hard” when cases were first discovered in Sydney.

Ms Berejiklian, for her part, says her critics have “completely unrealistic” views on how to manage the highly contagious Delta strain of the disease.

The three capital cities in these jurisdictions – Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne – are all now closed. Each started on a different date and the rules are a bit different too.

But beyond the political bitterness of the lockdown debate, what can we learn from how people moved during that time?

This week, Google released travel data showing how residents of these cities responded during the first two weeks of their restrictions — the pivotal period, according to epidemiologists.

Canberrans closed the hardest and fastest

A large part of the ACT employees have been able to work from home.(ABC News: Donal Sheil)

The graphs below are a result of Google using devices (usually mobile phones) to track where people are going.

Google has plotted how much time people spent in different locations against a “normal” period in early 2020, before the pandemic.

The two most obvious impacts of the lockdown were clear: people were spending more time at home and less time at work. (Day 0 on the charts marks the day each citywide shutdown began.)

Canberrans’ reaction differed considerably from residents of Sydney and Melbourne, although there are some obvious explanations.

The ACT staff have always had a preference for administrative or knowledge jobs – work that is relatively easy to do at home.

Also, Canberrans hadn’t survived four months of lockdown last year, as Melburnians did. Before their lockdown, which began on Aug. 12, ACT residents had had a relatively trouble-free year without a known case of local infection.

As such, they had no reason to have “lockdown fatigue”.

Sydneysiders got more freedom

An elderly couple in masks walk along the Bondi beach promenade.
Footage of Sydneysiders enjoying the beach frustrated some, but the activity was allowed.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

A major difference between the three cities was the rules of each closure.

When the NSW government ordered a city shutdown on June 23, most residents were not limited in the time they could exercise or enjoy outdoor recreation, nor how far they could travel to do it (if they stayed in the city). .

A larger number of businesses and stores were also allowed to remain open, although this policy was later tightened.

The data shows that Sydneysiders at this early stage spent more time in outdoor recreation locations than people under more severe restrictions.

And while images of crowds enjoying themselves on the beach angered some, in most cases they simply showed people adhering to NSW health regulations.

Looking for lessons in lockdown

None of the cities’ lockdowns have worked perfectly so far – COVID-19 continues to spread among all three populations.

At the same time, all lockdowns have slowed, to varying degrees, the number of infections and prevented deaths.

The NSW government has been accused – by other governments as well – of imposing a “lockdown lite”, which could allow the disease to spread further.

Still, the mobility data overall shows relatively small differences in how Sydneysiders and Melburnians changed their habits.

The value of this data is not in scoring political points; it helps to find out which constraints work best.

For example, does it matter how much time people spend outside? What travel patterns are associated with high local infection rates?

We will need answers to these questions at some point, as lockdowns are likely to become part of life – coming and going as needed – as we learn to “live with the virus” for years to come.

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