4th Aug 2020

COVID-19 FAQ:  Which distancing policies will people actually adopt – what does the science say?

4th Aug 2020

Curated by Endre Szvetnik

According to advice by the WHO, following physical distancing measures, sanitising our hands and wearing facemasks are key personal protective behaviours that can help us reduce the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Dealing with the pandemic requires changes in our behaviour

But do people actually follow these guidelines? A wide range of studies suggest that populations initially did so in most countries. For example, a survey into physical distancing found that people in the UK reduced their daily social contacts by 74% after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. The authors’ model projected that this change in behaviour alone would lower the viral reproduction number or "R"  from 2.6 to just 0.62. A South Korean study highlighted that the pandemic has caused the public to adjust its behaviour: 67.8% of people reported always practising good hand hygiene, 63.2% wore facemasks when outside and 50% cancelled social events

But won’t people get tired of following these policies, especially if we have a second wave coming?  There is a lot of debate in policy circles around whether “fatigue” may set in or whether one policy may interfere with the effectiveness of others. For example, could masks prompt people to pay less attention to other preventative measures? In behavioural science, this is called ‘risk compensation’, and we can conduct systematic research to address these questions. A recent review paper found that wearing a mask did not make people wash or sanitise their hands less often. It also cited observational studies with findings that people moved away from people who wore masks, increasing physical distance and lowering the chance of infection. Just as we’ve been guided by virologists and epidemiologists on how COVID spreads, policy-makers can use research on effective behaviour change techniques to motivate adoption of protective behaviours through an evidence-based combination of measures, such as education, persuasion, incentivisation and remodelling of the environment.

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard. NB: The pinboard contains research papers that have not been peer-reviewed yet, meaning that they have not gone through the standard scientific validation process yet.

Do you want to stay updated with the latest Covid-19 research? Sign up to our newsletter >>

Curated by

Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.

Share this digest