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Quantifying the impact of physical distance measures on the transmission of COVID-19 in the UK

Publication date: 

7 May 2020


BMC Medicine volume 18, Article number: 124 (2020)


Jarvis CI, Van Zandvoort K,, Gimma A, Prem K, CMMID COVID-19 working group, Klepac P, Rubin GJ & Edmunds WJ

Publication type: 



Background To mitigate and slow the spread of COVID-19, many countries have adopted unprecedented physical distancing policies, including the UK. We evaluate whether these measures might be sufficient to control the epidemic by estimating their impact on the reproduction number (R0, the average number of secondary cases generated per case). Methods We asked a representative sample of UK adults about their contact patterns on the previous day. The questionnaire was conducted online via email recruitment and documents the age and location of contacts and a measure of their intimacy (whether physical contact was made or not). In addition, we asked about adherence to different physical distancing measures. The first surveys were sent on Tuesday, 24 March, 1 day after a “lockdown” was implemented across the UK. We compared measured contact patterns during the “lockdown” to patterns of social contact made during a non-epidemic period. By comparing these, we estimated the change in reproduction number as a consequence of the physical distancing measures imposed. We used a meta-analysis of published estimates to inform our estimates of the reproduction number before interventions were put in place. Results We found a 74% reduction in the average daily number of contacts observed per participant (from 10.8 to 2.8). This would be sufficient to reduce R0 from 2.6 prior to lockdown to 0.62 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.37–0.89) after the lockdown, based on all types of contact and 0.37 (95% CI = 0.22–0.53) for physical (skin to skin) contacts only. Conclusions The physical distancing measures adopted by the UK public have substantially reduced contact levels and will likely lead to a substantial impact and a decline in cases in the coming weeks. However, this projected decline in incidence will not occur immediately as there are significant delays between infection, the onset of symptomatic disease, and hospitalisation, as well as further delays to these events being reported. Tracking behavioural change can give a more rapid assessment of the impact of physical distancing measures than routine epidemiological surveillance.