Face masks and social distancing must be stepped up as lockdown lifts, scientists say

31 March 2021, 09:34

The new research could put pressure on the government ahead of a review on the ongoing use of face masks in schools.
The new research could put pressure on the government ahead of a review on the ongoing use of face masks in schools. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Modelling experts say measures including wearing face masks and social distancing should “increase in strength” as lockdown is lifted, in new research that will put pressure on the government to continue the use of face coverings in schools.

Researchers at Cambridge and Liverpool universities have developed new models that offer insights into how effective different control measures are on curbing the spread of coronavirus.

The scientists modelled "non-spatial" control measures including face masks, hand washing and social distancing, and "spatial interventions" including lockdown and the restriction of long-distance travel.

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The paper says easing lockdown rules will “inevitably increase disease incidence” and the R number without an increase in “non-spatial” measures.

But it adds that if people wear face masks, wash their hands and social distance then the R number will stay “constant or even reduce” as lockdown is eased.

The research suggests ongoing social distancing is important for keeping the R number down.
The research suggests ongoing social distancing is important for keeping the R number down. Picture: PA

The modelling backs up the repeated calls from politicians and scientific advisors, who have urged the public to “remain cautious” and follow social distancing rules.

However, the message that face masks should be used more as lockdown eases could put pressure on the government ahead of a review on the use of face coverings in schools during the upcoming Easter holidays.

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

Study author Dr Yevhen Suprunenko, a research associate in the University of Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences, said measures such as face coverings, used properly alongside the vaccine rollout, could help to achieve a better outcome.

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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."

Dr Stephen Cornell from the University of Liverpool and co-author of the paper 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.

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It is also hoped that the modelling could help find better ways to deal with future pandemics.

“Our new model will help us study how different infectious diseases can spread and become endemic," author Professor Chris Gilligan said.

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