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Strict social distancing ‘could control virus within three months’


Firm rules must be enforced early on, says computer scientist

Social distancing must be adopted by at least 80 per cent of Australia’s population to effectively control the spread of Covid-19, according to research by the University of Sydney.

The study, based on national census data, found that strict social distancing measures could contain the spread of the virus within four months if 80 per cent of the population complied. If 90 per cent followed social distancing rules, control could be achieved within three months, by July 2020.

However, if less than 70 per cent took up these measures—such as staying at home and cancelling social activities—then social distancing would have no effect.

The study was led by computer scientist Mikhail Prokopenko, director of the complex systems research group at the university’s school of civil engineering.

“If we want to control the spread of Covid-19—rather than letting the disease control us—at least 80 per cent of the Australian population must comply with strict social distancing measures for at least four months,” he said in a university statement.

“If 90 per cent of the population complies, then the duration could be as short as 13 to 14 weeks—meaning if we began tomorrow, we could expect a control of Covid-19 by July.”

But if less than 70 per cent accepted federal and state government rules on social distancing, the exercise would be futile.

“There is a clear trade-off—stricter measures imposed earlier would reduce how long our lives are impacted by this disease. On the contrary, laxer protocols could mean a longer, more drawn-out and ineffective struggle,” Prokopenko said.

“There’s good reason for imposing tough measures early on. The longer we delay the peak, the more time our healthcare system has to prepare for it by accessing more resources such as [intensive care] beds, ventilators, antivirals and trained health workers.”

The study found that while school closures could potentially compensate for 10 per cent of a lack of social distancing compliance, they only delayed the peak of the pandemic by two weeks. 

School closures also did not significantly reduce new cases of Covid-19 for older adults, but slightly increased the fraction of new cases in children around the peak of the pandemic in Australia.

A research paper that details the data, modelling system and findings is available from the open-access e-print service ArXiv.