Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation?


Four friends sitting at a pub table drinking a pint of beer.Image copyright
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Cafes, pubs and restaurants have been ordered to close, to tackle coronavirus. Nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres must do so “as soon as they reasonably can”, the government says.

These steps are part of the UK’s social distancing measures. Everybody is being asked to avoid non-essential contact with other people.

It follows people with flu-like symptoms – such as dry cough and high temperature – being asked to self-isolate at home, to avoid infecting others.

Why is social distancing necessary?

Social distancing is important because coronavirus spreads when an infected person coughs small droplets – packed with the virus – into the air. These can be breathed in, or cause an infection if you touch a surface they have landed on, then your eyes, nose or mouth.

The less time people spend together, the less chance there is of this happening.

Everyone is now being told to follow self-distancing measures, especially the over-70s, pregnant women and adults normally eligible for a flu jab.

How to self-distance

  • Work from home whenever possible
  • Avoid all unnecessary travel
  • Stay away from crowded places like clubs, theatres and other such social venues
  • Avoid gatherings with friends and families wherever possible
  • Cafes, pubs and restaurants have been ordered to close – a measure the government will enforce “strictly”

What am I allowed to do when social distancing?

  • You can go for a walk or run outdoors if you stay 2m (6ft) away from others
  • You can see family and friends if it’s essential
  • You can walk your dog
  • You can provide essential care for elderly relatives and neighbours if you have no symptoms
  • You can go to the shops to buy food and groceries

What is self-isolation?

Self-isolating means staying at home and not leaving it, other than for exercise. Don’t go to work, school or public areas during this time.

If possible, you should not go out even to buy food or other essentials. If you are unable to get supplies delivered, you should do what you can to limit social contact when you do leave the house.

Who should self-isolate?

Everyone who shows coronavirus symptoms – a fever of above 37.8C, a persistent cough or breathing problem – and everyone who lives in the same house or flat as someone with symptoms.

  • If you live alone, you must stay at home for seven days from the day symptoms start
  • If you or someone you live with has symptoms, then the entire household needs to isolate for 14 days from the day they start
  • Anyone in the household who starts displaying new symptoms during the 14-day period will need to stay at home for seven more days, regardless of how long they have already been isolated

The person with the symptoms should stay in a well-ventilated room with a window that can be opened, and keep away from other people in the home.

People are being advised not to ring NHS 111 or their GP to report their symptoms unless they are worried.

Who else should self-isolate?

People with very serious health conditions need to be shielded from the virus for about 12 weeks, using special isolation and precaution measures to be announced soon. This group includes:

  • Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • Transplant patients
  • People with severe diseases or on dialysis
  • People with cystic fibrosis or severe asthma

What happens if you have a vulnerable person living with you during self-isolation?

You should keep at least 2m away from a vulnerable person (such as pregnant women, the elderly or those with an underlying health condition) during any period of isolation, according to PHE.

Limit time spent together in shared spaces, like kitchens, and keep all rooms well-ventilated. If they can, the vulnerable person should take their meals back to their room to eat.

A vulnerable person should also use separate towels from the rest of the household. If possible, they should use a separate bathroom. If that is not possible, the bathroom should be cleaned every time it’s used (for example, wiping surfaces with which you have come into contact).

People living with someone in isolation should wash their hands often, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds – especially after coming into contact with them.

Personal waste (like tissues) should be double-bagged and put aside for 72 hours before being put in your outside bin.

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