The Effectiveness of Social Distancing in Mitigating COVID-19 Spread: a modelling analysis

George Milne, Simon Xie

Research output: Working paperPreprint


Background: The novel coronavirus COVID19 has been classified by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic due to its worldwide spread. The ability of countries to contain and control transmission is critical in the absence of a vaccine. We evaluated a range of social distancing measures to determine which strategies are most effective in reducing the peak daily infection rate, and consequential pressure on the health care system.
Methods: Using COVID19 transmission data from the outbreak source in Hubei Province, China, collected prior to activation of containment measures, we adapted an established individual based simulation model of the city of Newcastle, Australia, population 272,409. Simulation of virus transmission in this community model without interventions provided a baseline from which to compare alternative social distancing strategies. The infection history of each individual was determined, as was the time infected. From this model generated data, the rate of growth in cases, the magnitude of the epidemic peak, and the outbreak duration were obtained.
Findings: The application of all four social distancing interventions: school closure, workplace non-attendance, increased case isolation, and community contact reduction is highly effective in flattening the epidemic curve, reducing the maximum daily case numbers, and lengthening outbreak duration. These were also found to be effective even after 10 weeks delay from index case arrivals. The most effective single intervention was found to be increasing case isolation, to 100 percent of children and 90 percent of adults.
Interpretation: As strong social distancing intervention strategies had the most effect in reducing the epidemic peak, this strategy may be considered when weaker strategies are first tried and found to be less effective. Questions arise as to the duration of strong social distancing measures, given they are highly disruptive to society. Tradeoffs may need to be made between the effectiveness of social distancing strategies and population willingness to adhere to them.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 23 Mar 2020

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