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TRENDING SCIENCE: Brave new post-COVID-19 world: The social experiment is on!

Europe, once the coronavirus epicentre, is lifting restrictions. Experts say we’ll be serving as test subjects during this next phase.

Fundamental Research

A study led by a team of infectious disease experts at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom supports that a careful, phased approach is needed as we emerge from month- or week-long restrictions. If we don’t proceed cautiously, we could be in for a “sizeable, second epidemic wave.” Without a vaccine, social distancing and telecommuting will continue to be part of our lives. The paper is available as a pre-print on ‘medRxiv’.

Better safe than sorry

“We need to lift only measures that we consider to be safe and then monitor them very carefully,” co-author Dr Mike Tildesley told the ‘BBC’. “In a sense, as we go through this phase of learning, we’re guinea pigs. But as that phase progresses, we’ll improve our understanding of how effective these measures are.” The researchers forecasted the short- and long-term impact of the pandemic as lockdown measures are eased by using a detailed mathematical model. “Our model predicts that, if significant relaxation of social distancing measures was introduced in May, the UK would have experienced a rapid resurgence of COVID-19 and the health service would be overwhelmed by a second epidemic wave,” lead author Prof. Matt Keeling, director of the Zeeman Institute for Systems Biology & Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research, said in a University of Warwick press release. “To prevent this second wave, we require strategies in which the social distancing measures are relaxed slowly, either gradually across the entire population or by targeting different regions or age-groups. Ultimately, the scenario which minimises deaths from COVID-19 requires long-term social distancing until a vaccine can be delivered.” Reopening non-essential shops and businesses where social distancing measures are enforced and working from home are both considered safe short-term measures. Reintroducing and releasing strict measures regionally, on the basis of intensive care unit bed occupancy, offers one choice for averting a large second wave. Other alternatives include the very deliberate easing of restrictions throughout the entire population and controlling restrictions to particular parts of the population.

The long way home

Dr Tildesley added: “We are working round the clock to understand the complex patterns of spread, and find ways in which life can take steps back towards normality without endangering lives. The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest event that we have been involved with in our careers, and we are keen to do anything that we can to help to provide advice that will help to control the spread of disease and to protect the most vulnerable members of society.” Imperial College London’s Prof. Azra Ghani shared some words of wisdom with the ‘BBC’ on the grand observational experiment: “It’s about people’s lives and livelihoods. And it involves people’s behaviour. There has to be a balance of the risk [from the disease] and of living daily life. We can get there, as long as people behave in a socially responsible way.”

Keywords

COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, social distancing, social distancing measures, restriction