August 11, 2021
There may be one advantage to being so far behind the rest of the developed world with vaccinations and reopening: we can learn from the experience of the rest of the world.
The Committee for Sydney plays a key role in bringing lessons from other cities to bear on issues here in Sydney, and the circumstances of Covid-19 are no different.
Here are some of the key global trends we think are important.
The vaccines work. Emerging data from the UK and Israel suggests the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines have higher efficacy than initially expected. Getting a second jab drastically reduces the risk of hospitalisation or death from the Delta variant.
Source: Doherty Modelling Report for National Cabinet 30 July 2021, p.25
The UK government estimates 90 per cent of adults now have Covid-19 antibodies. Despite fears to the contrary, hospitals were not overwhelmed after the UK’s “freedom day” on 19 July. While many people still have Covid-19, widespread vaccinations have meant the rate of serious cases is low.
What it means for Sydney: After we get to a high level of vaccination, we can reopen, even while Covid-19 circulates.
Many places are struggling with social cohesion. Covid-19 poses a major challenge to democratic societies for the simple reason that we don’t all agree with one another about risk tolerance and priorities, yet we are stuck living with the decisions of everyone else.
Moreover, the fact health experts disagree with one another means people do not know who to trust.
Finally, the experience of Covid has exacerbated economic divides everywhere, with lower income, essential workers bearing the brunt of the disease.
There have been scattered protests around the world as people reject public health orders and vaccine mandates, and widespread dissension and anger – both at governments and at fellow citizens:
What it means for Sydney: We need to take social cohesion seriously. The economic divides the Committee discussed in our paper, Adding to the Dividend, Ending the Divide, have been revealed starkly by the pandemic. Multicultural communities in southwestern Sydney have been hit hard, even as they do so much of the essential work that allows the rest of us to stay safely at home.
Convincing unvaccinated people is slow going. The countries that are ahead of Australia on vaccinations have all seen a slowing down of vaccination rates. This requires getting more sophisticated about the various reasons different sub-groups are not getting vaccinated.
In Israel and the USA, vaccination rates have topped out at 60 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Both countries continue to work on getting the numbers up, but progress has slowed. It’s not yet clear where other countries will top-out or how high vaccination rates can go.
Share of population fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Source: Our World in Data
What it means for Sydney: We need to be realistic about how high our vaccination rates can get. Setting targets for reopening that we cannot hit is tantamount to letting the vaccine-hesitant hold everyone else hostage. But the good news is, in other countries that have recently re-opened there has not been a catastrophic collapse of the health system.
Countries are getting creative about convincing people to get vaccinated.
What it means for Sydney: we should get creative about incentives, too – ideally measures that will also stimulate the economy – restaurant vouchers or even cash.
Some places are starting to mandate vaccines in public places. Requiring proof of vaccination to be in a public place is a powerful incentive to get jabbed (while also protecting businesses and essential workers from potential infection).
What it means for Sydney: Government can send a clear message to the community about the expectation to be vaccinated by making vaccines the ticket to get back to social life.
Some employers are mandating vaccines as a condition of employment. This approach seems especially pronounced in the USA:
What it means for Sydney: A former top advisor to Biden, Andy Slavitt, has said employer vaccine mandates will be essential for countries like Australia who are racing to get 70 to 80 per cent of the population vaccinated. One day after Slavitt’s statement, Australian food company SPC announced a mandate for all on-site workers to be vaccinated by November. The legal basis for employer vaccine mandates is likely to be highly contested. But in any case, employers in Sydney can still repurpose flu vaccination programs for their workforces.
Everyone believes that there will be a ‘hybrid’ remote work culture in the future. But what exactly is meant by “hybrid” is the subject of a great debate: how many days a week will employees end up in the office? What is the relative power balance between workers and bosses? How will corporate culture evolve?
McKinsey finds a huge increase in expectations of working remotely, but also a great deal of confusion on the part of both employees and employers as to how to make “hybrid” models work effectively – the firm also predicts a massive workforce attrition as workers plan to change jobs
Source: McKinsey & Company
What it means for Sydney: In some cases, decisions about workplace models for Sydney will literally be made in board rooms in New York or London. But more broadly, there is a shared global business culture that Sydney is part of, so what happens in other major cities is likely to impact our working culture.
Travel data shows car traffic returning much faster than public transport ridership. Last year public transport services around the world were cut as cities went into lockdown. Now, public transport is struggling to regain ridership while cars are choking streets:
This stark modal shift reflects people feeling less safe on public transport and more safe in a private car due to the pandemic.
What it means for Sydney: A shift away from public transport would be devastating for Sydney. There is simply no way for a global city of Sydney’s scale to function well unless a large share of trips are taken on public transport, for the simple reason that cars take up far more space. A car-based transport system cannot coexist with high density, walkable urban places. Sydney has made great strides with the new Metro system it is building – which is among the best in the world. We believe Sydney should double down on this investment: Metro provides the best option for stitching Sydney together, overcoming spatial inequality, meeting the city’s climate goals, accommodating future population growth and supporting healthy urban places — regardless of how much people work from home.
Cities that were healthy before Covid are recovering. But lots of people are choosing to move away from the expensive, superstar cities.
What it means for Sydney: Our assessment, based on the international evidence, is that cities like Sydney that were highly desirable before are going to remain so. We do not see evidence of a wholesale move away from city living, like what happened in the decades after World War II. That said, there are big questions about the overall supply of office space that all cities are grappling with. If the aggregate amount of time knowledge workers spend in their offices decreases, then it seems likely the aggregate amount of office space in a metro area would also decrease. But the spatial pattern remains to be seen. We tend to believe CBDs will be the most resilient part of metro office markets, with “second-tier” office precincts facing more trouble. CBDs are likely to embrace a wider mix of uses without fundamentally reducing their concentration of knowledge workers.
Many cities used the crisis of Covid-19 to make permanent improvements to their cities.
What it means for Sydney: Honestly, this is somewhat of a missed opportunity for Sydney. Just seven temporary cycleways have been put in, and only a few streets have been converted to support al fresco dining. The Committee has called for Sydney to “move social life outdoors,” including dining, as the next phase of reopening from lockdown, so there is still time to experiment. But the big opportunity here is to learn from other world cities and gain the courage to be bold about reclaiming public space for people.