COVID-19: Tougher rules around face masks and social distancing needed as lockdown lifts, scientists say

The roadmap out of lockdown may be progressing but measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing should get tougher, scientists have said.

Such restrictions should "increase in strength" in order to keep COVID-19 under control, new research suggests.

Modelling developed at the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool used mathematical equations to give insights into how the virus will spread in different scenarios.

The research focused on "non-spatial" control measures such as face masks, hand washing and social distancing – along with "spatial interventions" including lockdown and the restriction of long-distance travel.

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It showed that lifting lockdown without measures including face coverings and staying physically apart could increase the virus and the R number.

The paper states: "Our results show that the reduction of spatial control without a simultaneous increase of non-spatial control inevitably increases disease incidence by increasing the reproduction number.

"Alternatively, it is possible to keep the reproduction number constant or even reduce it if non-spatial control interventions increase in strength while spatial control measures are being lifted."

Published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the modelling came from wider research looking at control strategies for plant diseases.

Rules such as face coverings could help to achieve a better outcome alongside the vaccine rollout, according to study author Dr Yevhen Suprunenko, a research associate in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences.

Dr Suprunenko said: "More effective use of control measures like face masks and hand washing would help us to stop the pandemic faster, or to get better results in halting transmission through the vaccination programme.

"This also means we could avoid another potential lockdown."

Co-author of the paper Dr Stephen Cornell said while lockdowns might have a bigger impact, face masks and social distancing are cheaper actions people can take.

"Measures such as lockdowns that limit how far potentially infected people move can have a stronger impact on controlling the spread of disease, but methods that reduce the risk of transmission whenever people mix provide an inexpensive way to supplement them," Dr Cornell said.

Another co-author, Professor Chris Gilligan, added that the modelling could help find better ways to deal with future epidemics.

"Our new model will help us study how different infectious diseases can spread and become endemic," he said.

"This will enable us to find better control strategies, and stop future epidemics faster and more efficiently."

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