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Social distancing measures (SDMs) are community-level interventions that aim to reduce person-to-person contacts in the community. SDMs were a major part of the responses first to contain, then to mitigate, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the community. Common SDMs included limiting the size of gatherings, closing schools and/or workplaces, implementing work-from-home arrangements, or more stringent restrictions such as lockdowns. This systematic review summarized the evidence for the effectiveness of nine SDMs. Almost all of the studies included were observational in nature, which meant that there were intrinsic risks of bias that could have been avoided were conditions randomly assigned to study participants. There were no instances where only one form of SDM had been in place in a particular setting during the study period, making it challenging to estimate the separate effect of each intervention. The more stringent SDMs such as stay-at-home orders, restrictions on mass gatherings and closures were estimated to be most effective at reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Most studies included in this review suggested that combinations of SDMs successfully slowed or even stopped SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the community. However, individual effects and optimal combinations of interventions, as well as the optimal timing for particular measures, require further investigation. This article is part of the theme issue 'The effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions on the COVID-19 pandemic: the evidence'.

Original publication




Journal article


Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

Publication Date





World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control, School of Public Health, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, People's Republic of China.


Humans, Communicable Disease Control, Pandemics, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, Physical Distancing