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COVID-19 accelerated changes in infrastructure – report

Changes in digitisation, local infrastructure use and service adaption have been key responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, a new report has found.

The Infrastructure beyond COVID-19 report, comes from a national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia, developed by Infrastructure Australia and L.E.K Consulting.

Requested by the Australian Government in the 2020-21 Budget, the report found overall the Australian infrastructure sector responded well to the impacts of COVID-19. It looked at all critical infrastructure including the transport, telecommunications, digital, energy, water, waste, and social infrastructure sectors.

The report also found lockdowns, social distancing and work-from-home measures impacted projects by creating new trends and reversing others.

Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive Romilly Madew said this report establishes a baseline to help us understand how COVID-19 has changed the way we use infrastructure, and which of these changes could have lasting impacts on how we plan, fund and deliver the services we all rely on.

“COVID-19 has put a pause on the traditional driver of infrastructure, Net Overseas Migration, however the pace of change in the sector has generally increased, with new emerging trends.”

For instance the previously increasing trend of public transport use fell to 10 to 30 per cent of normal levels in the initial lockdown stage and settled at about 60 to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

But driving and traffic levels quickly rebounded, bolstered by an uplift in second hand car purchases.

Regional growth was found to be significant in the report, which saw a 200 per cent increase in net migration from capital cities to regional areas.

Madew said the pandemic put infrastructure to the test, though the report found that compared to other OECD countries the Australian networks were relatively resilient, service providers are adaptable and people are responsive to change.

“Across sectors, we found that Australia’s governments and infrastructure providers navigated dramatic changes to community behaviour and network requirements, and rapidly adjusted their service provision,” she said.

“The continuation of infrastructure construction across major projects was a key source of economic activity and employment during the pandemic, and ensured we took advantage of the three-year pause in population growth.”

She said public transport providers moved quickly to support social distancing and hygiene measures, along with other successful adaptions in broadband and hospital infrastructure.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated that there is an opportunity to make better use of what we have. This is a trend that both governments and industry should harness as we consider the infrastructure investment and reform responses that will best support Australia’s long-term economic recovery.”

The report identifies new challenges and opportunities to build on the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit. Such ideas will inform recommendations for the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan.

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