Coronavirus (COVID-19): What is social distancing?

Content from Public Health Matters Blog


The COVID-19 outbreak is a rapidly evolving situation and information and guidance is therefore updated frequently. This blog was last updated on 4 March 2020 and the information below has since been superseded.

Please visit nhs.uk/coronavirus for the latest health advice or gov.uk/coronavirus for all other information.

Coronaviruses can be spread when people with the virus have close, sustained contact with people who are not infected. This typically means spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person, such as talking to someone for instance.

The more you come into contact with the droplets from coughs and sneezes of an infected person, the more likely you are to catch the infection. This is why we ask people who have the infection to self-isolate at home and not to go out and about where they can pass it on.

However, on its own self-isolation may not be enough to slow the spread of a virus.

The Government’s new Coronavirus action plan recognises that as we start to see more cases in the UK, and more widespread community transmission of the virus, further measures to reduce the contact people have with each other may be needed.

These measures, sometimes referred to as “social distancing”, could include things like temporarily reducing socialising in public places such as entertainment or sports events, reducing our use of non-essential public transport or recommending more home working.

With each measure, scientists and experts will assess the need for them as the outbreak progresses, balancing their effectiveness against any impact on society. These decisions will recognise that for most people coronavirus will be a mild illness, but it can cause severe symptoms in older people or people with health conditions, and has the potential to increase the demands on our public services, especially the NHS, particularly if large numbers of people became ill at once.

Social distancing isn’t a new idea that’s come about because of coronavirus. These measures are well-established and have been discussed and planned for many years, including as part of the Government’s preparations for a flu pandemic.

Everyone has a part to play, and we’re asking people to think about what they do in a typical week,  how they could limit contact with others if asked to and how they could help people in their community, who might need support if certain social-distancing measures were put in place This might include helping older relatives and neighbours to get some food in, so that they would have supplies for a week or so if required, ensuring someone would be available to go shopping for them or arranging for online delivery if they needed it.

The evidence suggests that coronavirus is affecting older people and people with existing health conditions, such as lung and heart conditions. We would therefore encourage people with symptoms to avoid seeing older relatives or people with health conditions to avoid passing it on to them.

The simple things we are asking the public to do now are:

  • Continue to practice good hand hygiene
  • Consider how you or your family would manage if you had to self-isolate for a couple of weeks
  • Consider the possibility of home working
  • Think about what you do in a typical week and what steps you would need to take to limit non-essential contact with others

When will social distancing measures start?

People will naturally want to know if and when social distancing measures will start but it is not possible to confirm this right now.

These measures will only be implemented if a range of experts and scientists including the UK’s Chief Medical Officers decide they are necessary and proportionate, informed by the latest scientific evidence.

Any decision will balance both the need to protect people, with the social impact and the importance of maintaining day to day life, such as going to work or school.

It is possible that we could first put social distancing measures in place locally, rather than nationally, if there is widespread transmission in a particular area (such as in a village, town or city). Our decisions will be based on the pattern of transmission and evidence on how well the measures could work.

Why aren’t these measures being put in place now?

We are currently in the “contain” phase of the outbreak which means it is still possible and effective to identify individual cases and trace their close contacts. Once we move into the ‘delay’ phase, where we try to slow the spread of the virus and push widespread transmission to the summer months when there’s less pressure on the NHS, we will then consider social distancing strategies based on the latest information and evidence.

How will these measures help to slow the spread of the infection?

By limiting the amount of contact people have with each other, we can slow down the spread of the infection and try to delay widespread transmission to the summer when there is less pressure on the NHS.

Should I go to work as normal?

Right now, you should continue going to work as normal, unless you have been told otherwise by your employer. We are working with businesses to encourage them to look at options for minimising contact, such as home working, and so your employer may ask you to think about what you would need to put in place to be able to work from home.

Will the tube/ rail/ bus network be affected?

We will need to balance all actions to slow the spread of the infection against keeping the country running. We could consider temporarily closing public transport in certain areas if we are seeing a lot of spread of the infection in that locality, but only if absolutely necessary.

We could also encourage people to use public transport only for essential journeys, and suggest people stagger their working hours in order to make “rush hour” quieter. If people can walk or cycle to work, then we could urge them to think about doing this more frequently.

Can people still travel abroad?

Travel advice is in place for a range of specific areas and countries that are seeing more widespread transmission.

Unless advised by the FCO there is no reason to cancel any travel, but make sure you keep checking the FCO website for the latest information.

Will pubs, theatres, gyms, nightclubs close, what about big sport games?

COVID-19 spreads through close sustained contact with someone who has the virus (for instance being within 2 metres of someone for longer than 15 minutes).

If we see sustained transmission of the virus in certain areas, we might advise that people temporarily limit socialising in public places such as entertainment or sports events.

Any public health actions to stop or slow the spread of the infection will be balanced against the need to keep the country running.

Will you close schools?

Current evidence on COVID-19 suggests that children do not experience severe illness. We are still learning about how  children get infected and how likely they are to transmit it to older people or people with underlying health conditions.

Closing schools can be disruptive for both children and parents so this is something we would need to consider very carefully, but we are working with the Department for Education to look at alternative ways to deliver education and classes and reduce the impact on examinations if we need to use this measure.

Will you tell businesses to close?

We know that coronavirus spreads through close and sustained contact with someone who is infected with the virus and so office environments, for instance, are a place where the virus could spread.

We are working with businesses to look at how they can put contingency plans in place, for example looking at more home working for employees. Any measures to stop the spread of the virus need to be carefully balanced against the need to keep the country running.

Is the UK doing things differently from other countries?

We are looking carefully at all the scientific evidence on which measures might be most effective at slowing the spread of the virus. This includes looking at measures other countries are taking.

We will put in place measures which we believe will have the biggest impact on slowing the spread of the infection, based on the most up to date science and evidence.

How will you police this?

We will ask the public to help us take sensible measures to slow the spread of the infection and think about what their role in this can be. The current evidence suggests that older people and those with existing health conditions are more likely to be affected by the virus and so it’s important to consider how our behaviour can limit the spread of the infection and protect them, as well as help reduce pressure on the NHS by slowing down spread.

We all have a role to play and most importantly that includes practising good hand and respiratory hygiene such as washing hands regularly and catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue.

What if social distancing measures don’t work?

Social distancing is one of a range of measures that are being considered. The evidence suggests that a combination of actions is likely to help slow the spread of the virus and we will look at each of these closely.

Measures such as social distancing are not expected to completely end an outbreak but can slow it down and lessen the impact on people and our health services.

How long will social distancing go on for?

Decisions are made by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers, guided by the latest science and evidence and the patterns of transmission (how the virus is spreading). We would always look to balance the need to keep people safe with the need to keep the country running.