Will A Curfew Work? Here's What Scientists Think

A 10pm curfew will be implemented across England on Thursday, hoping to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Pubs, bars and restaurants across England will be subject to a 10pm curfew from Thursday – but will it actually help slow the spread of Covid-19?

The latest announcement follows curfews in the north-east of England and parts of Wales. Unfortunately, it’s too early to see if those curfews have been effective.

On Friday, Professor Eugene Milne, Newcastle’s public health director, explained there’s always a lag in results and residents in the north-east should expect cases to rise for “the next week or maybe two”. He added that we could be well into October before we see signs of a positive response.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert and professor in Medicine at University of East Anglia, says in general, there’s a “lack of any real evidence” on the impact of curfews on epidemics. “I did find one paper that suggested some benefit, but was not at all impressed by their analytical approach,” he tells HuffPost UK.

The move towards curfews, therefore, is largely based on scientists’ predictions of what might happen.

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“I guess it depends on what effect a curfew has on behaviour,” adds Prof. Hunter. “Are people going to go out earlier in the evening and still spend the same amount of time out as they would, or would it lead to less time out? If the latter, then there would be some value as risk is dependant on the number and proximity of people you are with and the time you spend with them.”

A curfew could also lead to some consuming less alcohol, adds Prof. Hunter – although again, there’s a lack of evidence that 10pm is the magic number. “If it leads to less alcohol consumption and less drunkenness, then maybe people would be better at social distancing,” he adds.

Dr Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor of Respiratory Sciences at the
University of Leicester, is a little more hopeful about the effectiveness of curfews, though.

“Curfews can be effective if people adhere to them to reduce the contact frequency between those who are still susceptible,” he tells HuffPost UK. “If you have six friends of whom four decide to obey the curfew and two don’t – this is better than none of them obeying the curfew.”

It also comes down to the fact the risk of transmission is higher during prolonged interactions, as opposed to fleeting interactions, Dr Tang adds.

“If the friends above choose to meet after school but can only meet for one hour instead of two hours before the curfew kicks in, then the risk of transmission may be reduced – though transmission is likely to be relatively quick at typical face-to-face conversational level,” he says.

“Again, all the interventions are incrementally beneficial. If there is a rule in place, some will choose to follow it and can reduce their contact frequency/duration to some extent, compared to if no rules are in place.”

Dr Nilu Ahmed, a lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Bristol, also believes curfews will be effective as they will act as a reminder to people that we are still in the midst of a pandemic.

“As people drink more and as people get past that point, usually after about 10pm, that social distancing goes out of the window,” she previously told HuffPost UK. “Even if you’re not a drinker or you’re a mild drinker, it’s about getting too comfortable. As soon as you’re back in that familiar space, you start to go back to our old habits.”

If handled the wrong way, some scientists have raised concerns that curfews could actually cause interactions and transmissions to increase.

Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University, previously told Global News that curfews can force people together at earlier times. He gave the example of Victoria, Australia, where an 8pm curfew was imposed – including shopping for groceries.

“People that would be at the grocery store are forced to go home, but they still need to get their food. Instead of going later, between 8pm and 10pm, for example, they now have to go in the middle of the afternoon with everybody else,” he said. “You’ve got an increase in density of people during the rest of the day simply because you’ve told everybody go home.”

We won’t know if the UK curfews have made things better or worse for several weeks – but let’s hope it doesn’t lead to a rush of visitors for the new, earlier, last orders.

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