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How individuals respond to government advice on preventing the spread of COVID-19 will be at least as important, if not more important, than government action, according to a new commentary from researchers at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London in the UK, and Utrecht University and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands.

Washing hands with soap and water

As the UK moves into the “delay” phase of dealing with a possible COVID-19 epidemic, a new commentary, published today in The Lancet, looks at what we know so far about the new virus. The researchers, led by Professor Sir Roy Anderson at Imperial College and Professor Deirdre Hollingsworth at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute (Nuffield Department of Population Health / Nuffield Department of Medicine), also suggest what can be done to minimise its spread and its impact.

Professor Hollingsworth said: ‘Completely preventing infection and mortality is not possible, so this is about mitigation. Our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 will change over time, as will the response. High quality data collection and analysis will form an essential part of the control effort. Government communication strategies to keep the public informed will be absolutely vital.’

Vaccine development is already underway, but it is likely to be at least a year before a vaccine can be mass-produced, even assuming all trials are successful. Social distancing is therefore the most important measure, with an individual’s behaviour key. This includes early self-isolation and quarantine, seeking remote medical advice and not attending large gatherings or going to crowded places. The virus seems to largely affect older people and those with existing medical conditions, so targeted social distancing may be most effective.

Read more on the Big Data Institute website

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