Covid: NSW removes automated pedestrian crossing button covers

NSW is removing hard plastic button covers from more than 100 pedestrian crossings, quietly retiring another Covid-era safety measure as the pandemic winds down.

The state government first rolled out automated crossings in the Sydney CBD and at major health precincts in March 2020 to minimise spread of the virus — when surface transmission was still believed to be a major risk — with large signs warning “don’t push the button”.

The temporary notices were replaced with semidurable hard plastic covers in August that year. Now, more than two years later, the covers are coming off.

A Transport for NSW spokeswoman confirmed “all of them will be removed”.

However, the pedestrian signal crossings will remain automated in the Sydney CBD 24 hours a day, seven days a week — meaning you can press them if you want, but you “don’t have to”.

“Pedestrians do not need to push the ‘call’ button at these activated sites as the pedestrian crossing phase has been programmed to be called automatically,” TfNSW said in a blog post earlier this month.

“This allows pedestrians to continue to cross the road safely while limiting contact with high-touch surfaces.”

The automation had already been removed at hospitals as of May this year.

“As restrictions have lifted across the state and the number of Covid-19 cases continues to reduce in the community, the automation of pedestrian signal crossings at health precincts has since been removed,” the department said.

Those were Sydney’s Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Westmead Hospital, Liverpool Hospital, Nepean Hospital in Kingswood, St George Hospital in Kogarah, Royal North Shore Hospital in St Leonards, and Blacktown Hospital.

“Transport for NSW continues to work closely with NSW Health in monitoring and maintaining this targeted initiative and will continue to review the benefits of these measures while balancing the needs of the community,” TfNSW said.

“Transport for NSW is investigating opportunities to remove the hardcovers from the push buttons but maintain the automation of pedestrian signal crossings during day time hours.”

TfNSW said the measure had originally been introduced in a “targeted approach … where it would be most effective in limiting the spread of coronavirus”.

At the start of the pandemic, surface contact was feared to be a major source of transmission of the virus, leading to widespread cleaning and disinfecting of things like doorknobs, public benches, poles and handles.

But by early 2021, experts were pointing out that while studies had shown virus particles could be detected for long periods of time on various materials, there was little evidence surface transmission was a common source of infection.

“The main way it’s spread is by the air, either by larger droplets via close contact, or by smaller droplets called aerosols,” La Trobe University epidemiologist Dr Hassan Vally wrote in The Conversation.

“This isn’t to say surface transmission isn’t possible and that it doesn’t pose a risk in certain situations, or that we should disregard it completely. But, we should acknowledge the threat surface transmission poses is relatively small.”

Dr Vally said that relatively small risk could be mitigated by continuing to focus on hand hygiene and “ensuring cleaning protocols are more in keeping with the risk of surface transmission”.

“In doing this, we can potentially save millions of dollars being spent on obsessive cleaning practices,” he said.

“These are probably providing little or no benefit and being done solely because they’re easy to do and provide the reassurance of doing something, thereby relieving some of our anxieties.”

TfNSW could not say how much the total project cost as “we are still in the early stages of the removal plan”.

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