A Modelling Analysis of Strategies for Relaxing COVID-19 Social Distancing

George Milne, Simon Xie, Dana Poklepovich

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle


Background: The ability of countries to contain and control COVID-19 virus transmission via social distancing is critical in the absence of a vaccine. Early activation of robust measures has been shown to control the daily infection rate, and consequential pressure on the health care system. As countries begin to control COVID-19 spread an understanding of how to ease social distancing measures to prevent a rebound in cases and deaths is required.
Methods: Using COVID-19 transmission data from the outbreak source in Hubei Province, China prior to activation of containment measures, we adapted an established individual-based simulation model of the city of Newcastle, Australia. Simulation of virus transmission in this model, with and without, social distancing measures activated permitted us to quantify social distancing effectiveness. Optimal strategies for relaxing social distancing were determined under two settings: with high numbers of daily cases, as in New York; and where early social distancing activation resulted in limited ongoing transmission, as in Perth, Australia.
Findings: In countries where strong social distancing measures were activated after the COVID-19 virus had spread widely, our study found these measures are required to be maintained for significant periods before being eased, to return to a situation where daily case numbers become low. In countries where early responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been highly successful, as in Australia, we show that a staged relaxation of social distancing prevents a rebound in cases.
Interpretation: Modelling studies and direct observation have shown that robust and timely social distancing have the most effect in containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Questions arise as to the duration of strong social distancing measures, given they are highly disruptive to society and economic activity. This study demonstrates the necessity of holding robust social distancing in place until COVID-19 virus transmission has significantly decreased, and how they may then be safely eased.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
Specialist publicationmedRxiv
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2020


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