New data has shown it is now undeniable many people have chosen to lock down despite no restriction demanding we do so.
There’s much talk right now that while Australia may not officially be in a lockdown, we’re effectively in one anyway.
That so many people are choosing to hunker down at home that cities are virtually empty and shops silent.
New data complied for news.com.au indeed shows a substantial drop in movement in Australia’s three largest cities since the Omicron wave began. Sydney’s CBD is now seeing less than a third of the trips into it compared to a pre-Covid baseline.
However, the numbers have also revealed that mobility is still far above levels seen during the deepest days of official lockdown.
Despite skyrocketing cases and seemingly everyone now knowing someone with Covid-19, significant numbers of Australians are still travelling to CBDs, shopping centres and workplaces.
We may not be in a full lockdown, but Australia is now in the grip of a self-selecting but less severe “shadow” lockdown.
“The numbers of people moving around is probably a bit higher than I would have thought given the volumes of Covid cases you’re seeing out there reported daily,” country head at analytics firm DSpark Australia Paul Rybicki told news.com.au.
“I would have thought movement would be a bit lower.”
In October, DSpark data showed that people in Sydney were abiding by lockdowns far more strictly than in Melbourne.
Since Omicron came on the scene, state governments have introduced various restrictions, including density limits in pubs. And they urged people to work from home if possible.
But working from home has not been mandated, all shops and most hospitality venues can remain open, there have been no stay-at-home orders and curfews or distance limits are a distant memory. Politicians have said lockdowns won’t be back. In some countries, where lockdowns have been introduced to fight Omicron, they haven’t worked with cases rising anyway.
Huge falls in movement – but not to lockdown levels
DSpark provided news.com.au with a measure of movement into and within the CBDs of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth by pulling data from public transport networks, roads, telco firms, app usage and other sources.
The company has worked with various public agencies including the Victorian and Queensland governments and Transport for NSW to measure mobility.
Its number-crunching found that on Monday, January 10 – the first day back at work for many – 278,000 trips were made into or within the Sydney CBD. To note: One person could make several trips – into work for instance and then out to get a coffee.
That compares to a pre-Covid baseline of 953,000 trips on January 13, 2020 – also the first Monday back at work for many people that year.
Looking at that in percentage terms, on Monday only 29 per cent on the trips were being made to Sydney’s CBD compared to the usual amount before the pandemic.
However, at the height of the Sydney winter lockdown – on July 23 – CBD trips bottomed out at just 11 per cent of the baseline. So current movement might be 71 per cent down on pre-Covid but it’s still three times higher than during an actual lockdown.
“So clearly, there isn’t a lockdown. But people are self-selecting to actually be less mobile,” Mr Rybicki said.
“They’re choosing to work from home, not to go into that large mall or not to get on public transport.”
Less movement in Melbourne
Monday also saw far fewer journeys than the 490,000 made on November 29, 2021, when Delta was lessening in concern for many but Omicron had barely registered.
That fairly relaxed November day is essentially Covid-normal for Sydney’s CBD, equating to 51 per cent fewer trips than pre-pandemic.
It’s a very similar picture for Melbourne. Movement into and around the CBD on Monday was 33 per cent of the pre-pandemic level.
But during lockdown, movement in Melbourne CBD was at 19 per cent. Notably that’s about double the 11 per cent movement in Sydney, further showing that the Melbourne winter lockdown was less successful in limiting movement.
Brisbane more mobile than other east coast capitals
The entry of Omicron and Queensland’s decision to reduce restrictions and open borders has led to the state seeing its first real wave of cases. And it’s a huge wave with 15,000 infections reported on Thursday.
Yet while movement has dropped, it’s still at 42 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
“Brisbane is interesting because it has really seen the case numbers go up but they’re still at a much higher percentage of mobility,” Mr Rybicki said.
“That does marry up with what we’ve seen throughout the last two years and that is that Brisbane has always been a bit more mobile.”
Indeed whereas Covid-normal movement in Sydney is half of the baseline and Melbourne 58 per cent, in November it was up to 77 per cent in Brisbane.
Big falls in shoppers, transport usage
Metrics from other sources also show that while mobility is down, it’s not at lockdown levels.
Google’s Covid-19 community mobility report for the week up to January 8 details locations people have visited and compares that to a pre-Covid baseline.
It found that visits to retailers (excluding food shops and pharmacies) and cafes was down 26 per cent compared to the baseline in NSW and Victoria, but only down by 12 per cent in Queensland. During lockdown, retail trips were down by 40 per cent.
Trips on public transport have crashed by half just about everywhere – but it was two-thirds down in lockdown. In Sydney, trains are now running to a weekend timetable.
The “shadow lockdown” drop was starker in the local government areas (LGAs) that contain CBDs.
Shopping in the City of Sydney LGA is down 49 per cent, transport usage down 58 per cent and workplaces by 30 per cent. Those figures were similar for the City of Melbourne. Suburban areas had seen less of a drop off mirroring lockdown trends of people shopping more locally to home.
Apple’s mobility trend reports looks at changes in travel habits.
It has public transport usage down by 39 per cent in Sydney during the last week compared to the baseline. That is less than half the fall seen during lockdown meaning a good chunk of people are continuing to commute. In Melbourne too, transport usage is down but nowhere near the depths of lockdown.
Brisbane’s use of buses and trains has gone down by just 27 per cent.
Driving, almost everywhere, is now back at or is even surpassing, pre-Covid levels.
Perth movement is far higher
It’s a very different situation in Perth – perhaps unsurprisingly given its lack of Covid.
On Monday, 88 per cent of trips compared to the baseline were made into the Perth CBD. Although even that is down on late November when movement in Perth was virtually back to pre-pandemic levels.
But what will happen once the Omicron wave dissipates?
After previous lockdowns, movement has shot up. But less so in Sydney and Melbourne which have both been hit hard by longer and more arduous lockdowns.
In the Harbour City’s CBD, movement has only ever got back to around half of that compared to January 2020. There’s no reason to suggest it will be much different in the coming months, said Mr Rybicki.
“The more you go through [waves and lockdowns], the more nervous people are in terms of behaviour.
“So I would be quite surprised if we got back to [Covid-normal levels of movement] immediately.”