The differential impact of physical distancing strategies on social contacts relevant for the spread of COVID-19

Emanuele Del Fava, Jorge Cimentada, Daniela Perrotta, André Grow, Francesco Rampazzo, Sofia Gil-Clavel, Emilio Zagheni


Physical distancing measures are intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, the impact these measures have on social contact and disease transmission patterns remains unclear. We ran the first comparative contact survey (N=53,708) across eight countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, United States) for the period March 13 – April 13, 2020. Our results show that social contact numbers mainly decreased after governments issued physical distancing guidelines rather than after announcing national lockdown measures. Compared to pre-COVID levels, social contact numbers decreased by 48% – 85% across countries. Except in Italy, these reductions were smaller than those observed in Wuhan (China). However, they sufficed to bring the R0 below one in almost every context considered. Finally, in all countries studied, the numbers of contacts decreased more rapidly among older people than among younger people, indicating higher levels of protection for groups at greater risk.