How effective are travel restrictions in stopping the spread of COVID-19?

By Yaya Caird, 6.2

Right now, more than 90% of the world’s population are living under travel restrictions. These restrictions have heavily affected people’s lives financially, socially and mentally.

So, is the travel ban actually effective in stopping, or at least reducing the spread of COVID-19?

Travel bans range from restricting movement within the country or travelling internationally.

When the severity of COVID-19 was first globally known after its first death on the 10th of January, there were already 41 clinically confirmed conditions reported.

By the 22nd of January there was 571 confirmed cases and 17 deaths reported, with cases already reported in other countries (such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, shown in the image below)

Yaya 1

At 2am the next day, the Wuhan authorities issued a notice of the travel ban that would be set at 10am. However, before 10:00 an estimated 300,000 people had left Wuhan – this figure was fuelled by the wishes of the population to be with their families for the Chinese New Year happening 2 days later. Within a day after this lockdown was set, 24 other cities in the vicinity of Wuhan also went into lockdown.

Although the travel ban didn’t manage to contain all people within the city, it definitely played a very important role in decreasing the rate of the spread drastically.

What would’ve happened without any travel restrictions in place?

By having major lockdowns, countries are hoping for the reproduction (the number of people a confirmed case infects) to be below one (R<1). This ensures for the peak healthcare demand to be reduced, protected the most vulnerable COVID patients as well as patients with other serious diseases.

Research conducted by Imperial College London shows the projected deaths of UK and US if there were no interventions. With no distancing measures placed in these two countries, approximately 81% of the country would be infected with 510,000 total deaths in the UK and 2.2 million deaths in the US (as of 29th of April there are 61,680 deaths in US and 26,097 in the UK).


(A) Imperial College London: Projected deaths per day per 100,000 population in GB and US without any interventions1.

This graph shows the importance of travel restrictions and social distancing. Without any in place, in the case of an uncontrolled epidemic the ICU bed demand would be a value greater than 30 times the maximum bed supply in the country:


Mitigation strategy scenarios for GB showing critical care (ICU) bed requirements.1

Did the UK go into lockdown at the right time?

Many people may think that the reaction of some countries to COVID-19, and the time they took to set travel restrictions was unbelievably slow. However, the aim of the travel ban is to reduce the peak incidence and overall death count, and so the restrictions have to last as long as possible. This means that if you introduce the intervention too quickly, before there are enough individual cases in the country, once the restrictions are lifted there would be another major peak in infection.

There needs to be a balance between when restrictions are introduced with how long they will be maintained, to ensure there is enough herd immunity when the restrictions are lifted in the future, to avoid a second peak in infection.

The UK has yet to experience a hospital crisis as Italy and Spain has, so it will be interesting to see if the government made the right decision in the timing to start the lockdown.

[1] Imperial College London Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand, 16th March 2020: