Key points:

  • Adata study reveals social distancing must be adopted by at least 80 percent of the Australian population to reduce the spread of COVID-19
  • If 90 percent of the population adopted social distancing, the spread of COVID-19 could be controlled by July 2020
  • Social distancing of less than 70 percent would not suppress pandemic

If social distancing measures were adopted by at least 80 percent of theAustralian population, we could expect to see a control of the spread of theCOVID-19 pandemic in just over three months, new research by the University ofSydney has found.

Led by Complex Systems academic and pandemic modelling expert, ProfessorMikhail Prokopenko, the study also revealed that social distancing would be anunproductive measure if adopted by less than 70 percent of the population.

“If we want to control the spread of COVID-19 – rather than letting thedisease control us – at least eighty percent of the Australian population mustcomply with strict social distancing measures for at least four months,” saidProfessor Mikhail Prokopenko.

“However, if ninety percent of the population complies, then the durationcould be as short as thirteen to fourteen weeks – meaning if we began tomorrowwe could expect a control of COVID-19 by July,” he said.

“Conversely, if less than seventy percent of the population is adopting socialdistancing measures, we cannot suppress the spread of the pandemic and anysocial distancing could be a fruitless effort,” he said.

“There is a clear trade off – stricter measures imposed earlier would reducehow long our lives are impacted by this disease. On the contrary, laxerprotocols could mean a longer, more drawn out and ineffective struggle againstCOVID-19,” he said.

The research also found that for every day the stricter social distancingmeasures are delayed, society would need to endure several more days under alonger suppression policy.

“There’s good reason for imposing tough measures early on. The longer we delaythe peak, the more time our healthcare system has to prepare for it byaccessing more resources such as ICU beds, ventilators, antivirals and trainedhealth workers,” said Professor Prokopenko.

The researchers also found that while school closures had the potential tocompensate for ten percent of a lack of social distancing compliance, theyonly delayed the peak of the pandemic by two weeks.

They also found that school closures did not significantly reduce new casesfor older adults, but slightly increased the fraction of new cases in childrenaround the peak of the pandemic in Australia.

The modelling

The AceMod simulator comprises over twenty-four million software agents, eachwith attributes of an anonymous individual, such as age, gender, occupation,susceptibility and immunity to diseases. Contact rates within different socialcontexts, such as households, household clusters, local neighbourhoods,schools, classrooms and workplaces are also built into the program.

The set of generated agents captures average characteristics of the realpopulation and is calibrated to 2016 Australian Census data with respect tokey demographic statistics.

The interactions result in transmission of the disease from infectious tosusceptible individuals: given the contact and transmission rates, thesimulation computes and updates agents’ states over time, starting frominitial infections, seeded in international airports around Australia

In this scenario, 80 percent social distancing could either mean – any personin one household could go out once in five days, or, one member per family offive could go out daily, but the other four stay at home all the time.

Fig 6.b Strong compliance with social distancing (at 80% and above)effectively controls the disease during the suppression period, while lowerlevels of compliance (at 70% or less) do not succeed for any duration of thesuppression. Credit: Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, University of Sydney


The study, Modelling transmission and control of the COVID-19 pandemic inAustralia, was authored by PhD students Sheryl Chang and Nathan Harding, aswell as Dr Cameron Zachreson, Dr Oliver Cliff and Professor Mikhail Prokopenkofrom the University of Sydney’s Centre for Complex Systems, and Marie BashirInstitute for Infection Diseases and Biosecurity. The Authors were supportedthrough the Australian Research Council grants.


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