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Limits of lockdown: characterising essential contacts during strict physical distancing

By Amy C Thomas, Leon Danon, Hannah Christensen, Kate Northstone, Daniel Smith, Emily J Nixon, Adam Trickey, Gibran Hemani, Sarah Sauchelli, Adam Finn, Nicholas J. Timpson, Ellen Brooks-Pollock

Posted 13 Mar 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.03.12.21253484

COVID-19 has exposed health inequalities within countries and globally. The fundamental determining factor behind an individuals risk of infection is the number of social contacts they make. In many countries, physical distancing measures have been implemented to control transmission of SARS-CoV-2, reducing social contacts to a minimum. Characterising unavoidable social contacts is key for understanding the inequalities behind differential risks and planning vaccination programmes. We utilised an existing English longitudinal birth cohort, which is broadly representative of the wider population (n=6807), to explore social contact patterns and behaviours when strict physical distancing measures were in place during the UKs first lockdown in March-May 2020. Essential workers, specifically those in healthcare, had 4.5 times as many contacts as non-essential workers [incident rate ratio = 4.42 (CI95%: 3.88-5.04)], whilst essential workers in other sectors, mainly teaching and the police force had three times as many contacts [IRR = 2.84 (2.58-3.13)]. The number of individuals in a household, which is conflated by number of children, increases essential social contacts by 40%. Self-isolation effectively reduces numbers of contacts outside of the home, but not entirely. Together, these findings will aid the interpretation of epidemiological data and impact the design of effective SARS-CoV-2 control strategies, such as vaccination, testing and contact tracing.

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