Wearing face masks and keeping socially distant is even more important as lockdowns are lifted, research found.
Rather than easing up on their use, they should "increase in strength", scientists suggested, dashing hopes for people hoping they will be able to get back to normal and ditch the protective masks.
Modelling developed by scientists at the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool used mathematical equations to give insights about how Covid-19 will spread in different scenarios.
The modelling was based on examples of "non-spatial" control measures including face masks, hand washing and social distancing, and "spatial interventions" including lockdown and restrictions on long-distance travel.
“Our results show that the reduction of spatial control without a simultaneous increase of non-spatial control inevitably increases disease incidence by increasing the reproduction number," the paper said.
“Alternatively, it is possible to keep the reproduction number constant or even reduce it if non-spatial control interventions increase in strength while spatial control measures are being lifted.”
The modelling, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, came from wider research looking at control strategies for plant diseases.
Study author Dr Yevhen Suprunenko, a research associate in the University of Cambridge’s department of plant sciences, said measures such as face coverings, used properly alongside the vaccine campaign, could help to achieve a better outcome.
“More effective use of control measures like face masks and hand washing would help us to stop the pandemic faster, or to get better results in halting transmission through the vaccination programme. This also means we could avoid another potential lockdown,” Dr Suprunenko said.
Dr Stephen Cornell from the University of Liverpool and co-author of the paper said while lockdowns might have a bigger effect, face masks and social distancing are cheaper actions people can take.
“Measures such as lockdowns that limit how far potentially infected people move can have a stronger impact on controlling the spread of disease, but methods that reduce the risk of transmission whenever people mix provide an inexpensive way to supplement them,” Dr Cornell said.
Prof Chris Gilligan, from the University of Cambridge’s department of plant sciences – also a co-author – said the modelling could help to find better ways to deal with future epidemics.
“Our new model will help us study how different infectious diseases can spread and become endemic,” he said.
“This will enable us to find better control strategies, and stop future epidemics faster and more efficiently.”