Background: Physical distancing as a non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission aims to reduce interactions between people, including between different households. We explored whether sexual intimacy needs impacted on compliance with physical distancing at a population level in Britain following the initial national lockdown on 23 March 2020. Methods: We undertook the Natsal-COVID web-panel survey between 29 July-10 August 2020. Quota-based sampling and weighting were used to obtain a quasi-representative sample of the British population. We estimated reporting of physical contact outside of the household (PCOH) with a romantic/sexual partner in the four weeks prior to interview, described the type of contact, identified demographic and behavioural factors associated with PCOH and present age-adjusted odds ratios (aORs). Results: Of the 6,654 participants aged 18–59 years, 9.9% (95%CI:9.9–10.6%) reported PCOH. Of these, 86.1% reported oral/anal/vaginal sex or genital contact, while the remaining reported kissing (10.4%) or only holding hands/hugging/cuddling (3.4%). PCOH varied by age and gender and was highest in those aged 18–24 (20.6% of women and 15.6% of men). PCOH was more likely in participants identifying as gay/lesbian (aOR 2.5; 1.82–3.45) or bisexual (aOR 1.52; 1.12–2.05) and those reporting >1 partner (aOR 1.71; 3.77–5.88) or condomless sex with a new partner (OR 5.03; 1.07–6.21) in the past year. PCOH was less likely in those reporting a steady or cohabiting relationship (aOR 0.66; 0.55–0.79 and aOR 0.11; 0.08–0.14 respectively), and in those reporting bad/very bad health (aOR 0.54; 0.32–0.93). Conclusion: The intimate nature of sexual contact is high-risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission and PCOH may expand transmission networks by connecting households. Mathematical models of NPIs might consider age- and gender-specific PCOH in the context of other mixing patterns. Public health messaging needs to recognise the importance of sexual and romantic contact in people’s decision-making and adherence to control measures.


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Sonnenberg, P., Menezes, D., Freeman, L., Clifton, S., Dema, E., Mercer, C., Copas, A., Gibbs, J., Riddell, J., Maxwell, K., Bosó Pérez, R., Johnson, A., Mitchell, K. & Field, N. 2021, 'Investigating Intimate Physical Contact Between Partners From Different Households During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings From a Large, Quasi-Representative Survey (Natsal-COVID)', Sexually Transmitted Infections, 97((Suppl 1)). http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/sextrans-2021-sti.74

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Last updated: 25 July 2023
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