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Researchers to investigate social contact and physical distancing behaviours during COVID-19

Press release issued: 1 July 2020

It is known that coronavirus spreads between close contacts. Researchers at the University of Bristol are investigating social contact patterns and physical distancing behaviours to help understand how the virus spreads.

Understanding these contact patterns, and how people physically distance from each other in different settings and among different groups, will help policy makers design effective control strategies for preventing transmission.

The CON-QUEST (COroNavirus QUESTionnaire) study, funded by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and supported by the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation, will initially focus on contacts between University staff and students to understand how coronavirus spreads in a university setting.

The researchers will collect information through an anonymous online survey, which will ask questions about participants’ contact with other people, COVID-19 symptoms and health-seeking behaviour. The survey is open to University of Bristol staff and students aged 18 and over.

The survey will be distributed under the current physical distancing measures and repeated regularly to collect close to real-time data along with changes in those measures. This will give a picture of how contact patterns and physical distancing behaviours change over time and with different measures in place.

Emily Nixon, Research Associate in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol, who is leading the study, said: "We are interested in quantifying contact patterns between individuals in the academic community because they may have quite different social interactions to the general population. The contact behaviour of students may be particularly unique, due to their living and social arrangements. Understanding these contacts will be important in developing strategies to prevent transmission of coronavirus in universities, not just here in Bristol but nationwide.

"We hope to roll out the CON-QUEST survey to other universities who may be interested and to adapt it for staff and residents in care homes."

The study is one of a number being conducted by UNCOVER, Bristol's COVID Emergency Research Group. Other surveys are focusing on under-represented groups, including children and older adults.

Link to the survey (for University of Bristol staff and students only):

Further information

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About the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol
The Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and a partnership between University of Bristol and Public Health England (PHE), in collaboration with the MRC Biostatistics Unit at University of Cambridge and University of the West of England. We are a multidisciplinary team undertaking applied research on the development and evaluation of interventions to protect the public’s health. Our aim is to support PHE in delivering its objectives and functions. Follow us on Twitter: @HPRU_BSE

About the National Institute for Health Research
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research.


  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health
  • and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach,
  • quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and
  • care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate
  • discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of
  • research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.

About Elizabeth Blackwell Institute
Nurturing research. Improving health.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute drives innovation in research to improve health for all. It nurtures interdisciplinary research to address the complex health challenges facing us today.

The institute focuses on:

  • Supporting the next generation of health researchers
  • Connecting people to develop interdisciplinary research
  • Including everyone in research so the research can benefit all.

As well as supporting research with funding the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute is also helping to connect research up across the University as a whole, so that people working on COVID-19 have the chance to work together, sharing resources and expertise. This aligns with the work that the Institute already supports to galvanise research across disciplines and groups, through research networks and thematic strands, ranging from Infection and Immunity to Medical Humanities. 

About the Bristol UNCOVER group
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, researchers at the University of Bristol formed the Bristol COVID Emergency Research (UNCOVER) Group to pool resources, capacities and research effortsto combat this infection.

BristolUNCOVER includes clinicians, immunologists, virologists, synthetic biologists, aerosol scientists, epidemiologists and mathematical modellers and has links to behavioural and social scientists, ethicists and lawyers and is supported by a large number of junior academic and administrative colleagues.

Follow Bristol UNCOVER on Twitter at:

For more information about the University of Bristol’s coronavirus (COVID-19) research priorities visit:


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