What is self-isolation and why is it important?

Content originally from Public Health Matters blog

We recently blogged about contact tracing, an important technique we use to stop diseases like COVID-19 from spreading. Part of the contact tracing process may involve asking someone who has had close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to self-isolate at home.

In this blog, we will explain what self-isolation is, why it is important, and which groups are currently being advised to self-isolate.

Self-isolation is about protecting others and stopping the spread of COVID-19. It is very important that anyone who has or might have been exposed to the virus limits the number of people they come into contact with for 14 days. This is the most effective way of preventing the coronavirus from spreading.

If you are asked to self-isolate, it is important that you follow the advice which is there to help keep you, your loved ones, and your community safe. Self-isolation may seem tricky at first, but across the country, hundreds of people have already successfully done it. If you have been told to self-isolate too, all the instructions you need to follow are available in this advice sheet and the tips in this blog should help to make things easier.

We will update this blog as new information becomes available, so bookmark this page now and keep checking back.

Who needs to self-isolate?

Currently in the UK, self-isolation is relevant to several groups of people:

People who are waiting for a COVID-19 test result

If you have travelled back from an area where the coronavirus is known to be present and have symptoms, you may have been asked to take a COVID-19 test. Whilst waiting for the results of tests for COVID-19 coronavirus infection, you will be advised by your local health protection team and your doctor to stay at home and self-isolate. Follow the important instructions detailed on this advice sheet.

People who are identified as being a close contact of someone with coronavirus

At the moment, we are undertaking contact tracing to prevent the infection spreading further.

This contact tracing work may lead to more people being advised to self-isolate. Find out more about how this process works in our explainer blog.


If you have travelled back from Wuhan or Hubei Province in China you should stay indoors for 14 days even if you do not have any symptoms of the virus as the risk of developing symptoms is much higher.

Anyone who has symptoms of any kind who has returned to the UK from the following areas should self-isolate and call NHS 111 or outside England equivalent (details on this page):

  • China
  • Thailand
  • Japan
  • Republic of Korea
  • Hong Kong
  • Taiwan
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • Macau

What if I am in another group?

We are not currently advising that individuals outside of the groups above should self-isolate.

Asking wider groups of people with symptoms to self-isolate is a measure sometimes used when an infection is spreading in the community, for instance during the winter if you suspected you had flu you would remain at home to avoid passing it on to people in your community or at work. If we recommend this action, we’ll immediately inform the public and provide additional advice.

What does self-isolating mean?

If you have been told to self-isolate, you will need to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people. This will prevent you from spreading the disease to your family, friends and the wider community.

In practical terms, this means that you must:

  • stay at home
  • not go to work, school or public areas
  • not use public transport like buses, trains, tubes or taxis
  • avoid visitors to your home
  • ask friends, family members or delivery services to carry out errands for you – such as getting groceries, medications or other shopping

If I do not have any symptoms, do I need to self-isolate?

It is important that if you fall in any of the groups listed above, you follow the relevant self-isolation advice even if you do not have any symptoms.

What if I get symptoms during those 14 days?

If you experience a cough, a fever, or breathing difficulties, call NHS111 and tell them you are being asked to self-isolate because of coronavirus. If you have been given a designated medical contact point you can also contact them for advice. They will talk you through the next steps.

Even if the symptoms seem like mild respiratory symptoms, it is better to call for advice.

How do I get food or supplies?

It is fine for friends, family or delivery drivers to drop off food for you. Alternatively, you can order by phone or online, such as through take away services or online shopping deliveries. However, make sure you tell the delivery driver that the items are to be left outside, or in the porch, or as appropriate for your home.

I live with other people, how do I self-isolate?

It is important that you separate yourself from other people in your home and if you share facilities like toilets and bathrooms, regular cleaning will be required.

You should stay in a well-ventilated room with a window that can be opened, separate from other people in your home.

In the advice sheet, there are specific recommendations in the case that a separate bathroom is not available, if you live in shared accommodation, and if you share a kitchen with others, and these should be followed closely.

What if I have other responsibilities, such as work and taking care of family?

Unfortunately, if you have COVID-19 or are at higher risk of being infected, we must prioritise reducing the risk of transmitting the disease to others, particularly to people who may be more vulnerable such as older people or people with health conditions.

During an outbreak, it is important that we all do everything we can to reduce the risk of further spread of the infection. This will require understanding and support from employers, family members and friends.

  • Talk to those around you, including your employer, about the importance of self-isolation to reduce the risk of spreading infection at work. If you are well, you can work from home
  • Make plans with your family and friends on how to manage shopping, dropping children to schools and events
  • Ask people to not visit your house for your duration; if you need a healthcare or care visit at home during this time, inform them that you are self-isolating in advance so that they can follow their local employers guidance

I am finding this hard, what should I do?

We understand that for some people self-isolation can be boring or frustrating. You may find your mood and feelings being affected and you may feel low, worried or have problems sleeping. You may also feel isolated and alone.

However, we would not ask you to do this if it was not important. There are simple things you can do that may help, such as staying in touch with friends and relatives on the phone or by social media and you may find it helpful to talk to them, if you want to.

There are also resources you can use, including: