University of Technology Sydney transport expert Mathew Hounsell said more people would be able to fit onto trains and buses safely if the government encouraged people to use face masks.
“I think we could get towards full loading,” Mr Hounsell said.
“We do know that wearing cloth face masks will reduce the spread of COVID-19, so strongly encouraging people to wear masks and cleaning the network thoroughly, means we could increase the number of people on public transport.”
When asked his position on the introduction of face masks on public transport like other cities across Asia and Europe, Mr Constance deferred to local health advice which didn’t recommend the practice.
“I’m not saying the situation won’t change in relation to masks, it could very easily, but the viewpoint has been, certainly very early on in the pandemic, we needed to make sure that we had enough surgical masks for medical professionals,” he said.
“I’m not discouraging people to through their own means, if they choose to, by all means wear masks but we don’t have that advice.”
The World Health Organisation updated its advice in June “in light of evolving evidence” suggesting that governments should encourage the public to wear masks where transmission is widespread and physical distancing is difficult, including public transport.
The new advice prompted Opposition transport spokesman Chris Minns to write to Mr Constance, urging the Minister to implement masks on public transport.
“The NSW government can send a strong signal that wearing face masks on public transport is desirable, responsible and complements other social distancing and hygiene efforts,” Mr Minns said in the June 10 letter seen by the Herald.
Mr Minns said wearing masks was a “common-sense solution to a severe problem”.
“It’s a way of ensuring parts of the economy return while providing a measure of safety to commuters,” he said in a statement.
Chief executive of think tank the Committee for Sydney Gabriel Metcalf said cities that were “serious about public transport” required passengers to wear masks.
“London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Seoul – it appears that most of the cities that have high rates of public transport ridership are requiring masks,” Mr Metcalf said.
“If you do that then you can increase passenger counts on buses and trains, while still preventing the spread of the virus.”
While outlining the state’s response to transport during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Constance also hinted he would like to see the new pop-up cycleways built across the city become permanent if they proved successful.
“My preference is to see them become permanent if they’re well used,” Mr Constance said.
Sydney’s bus drivers have been lobbying the state government for months for access to face masks, with some resorting to making their own, or using donated products.
A Transport for NSW spokeswoman said the government was working closely with all industry stakeholders to ensure frontline staff are appropriately equipped and protected.
“In line with NSW Health advice, face masks are not recommended for the general public unless they are unwell and masks should be saved for people to use when they are sick,” the spokeswoman said.
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Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.