Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation?

Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation?

Man walks alone by Regents Park pond, London

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Strict rules have been placed on people’s personal movement to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Under the restrictions, everybody must stay at home and only leave if they have a “reasonable excuse” which includes:

  • to exercise – either alone, or with members of your household (government guidelines suggest once a day)
  • shopping for basic necessities (the guidelines say this should be done as infrequently as possible)
  • any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • travel to or from work, but only when you cannot work from home

Other valid reasons include attending the funeral of a close family member, key workers taking children to childcare, and because of access arrangements for a child.

If you have to go outside you should stay more than 2m (6ft) apart from anyone other than members of your own household. This is what’s known as social distancing.

Shops selling non-essential items are closed, along with cafes, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other places where people meet in groups. Gatherings of more than two people not from the same household are banned.

The restrictions were introduced on 23 March, initially for three weeks. But England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries says it could take six months to see “whether we can get back to normal” and “it is plausible that it could go further than that”.

Police have the power to enforce these measures, by the use of fines and by dispersing gatherings.

What are the rules on exercise?

People are being told only to take one form of exercise a day. The guidelines say:

  • Maintain a social distance of more than 2m from anyone outside your household, wherever you go
  • Exercise alone or with members of your own household
  • Gatherings of more than two in parks or other public spaces have been banned (ruling out most team sports)
  • Take hygiene precautions when you are outside, and wash your hands as soon as you are back indoors
  • Stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily

The guidelines do not explicitly define what counts as “local” and whether people can drive somewhere to take exercise. However, some police forces have tried to discourage this.

No mention is given to how long you can exercise for. But the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has advised: “I would have thought for most people a walk of up to an hour, a run of 30 minutes or a cycle ride of between that, depending on their level of fitness, is appropriate.”

Some outdoor spaces, including playgrounds, outdoor gyms and some parks are closed. Victoria Park in east London has been closed because of “the failure of some visitors to follow social distancing guidance”.

Dogs can be walked as part of a person’s daily exercise. There is nothing in government guidance on the subject to say whether pets have to be kept on a leash although some parks – including the Royal Parks – are insisting on this, as a way of ensuring people maintain social distancing.

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 can cause an infection if you touch a surface they have landed on, and then touch your face with unwashed hands.

What is self-isolation?

If you show symptoms of coronavirus – such as a dry cough and high temperature – you must take extra precautions.

You should stay at home and if possible, not leave it for any reason, other than to exercise once a day (staying at least 2m away from others).

This is known as self-isolation.

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 problems – 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, develop symptoms, the entire household needs to isolate for 14 days to monitor for signs of Covid-19
  • If someone else does become ill during that period, their seven-day isolation starts that day. For example, it might run from day three to day 10 – when that person’s isolation would then end. It would not restart if another member of the household fell ill
  • But anyone who fell ill on day 13 would have to start a separate seven-day isolation from that day (meaning they would spend a total of 20 days at home)

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 shouldn’t go out at all?

About 1.5 million people with very serious health conditions are being contacted by the NHS and urged not go out at all for at least 12 weeks.

This is what’s known as shielding.

The most vulnerable group includes:

  • Certain types of cancer patients
  • Organ transplant patients
  • People with certain genetic diseases
  • People with serious respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis and severe chronic bronchitis
  • People receiving certain drug treatments which suppress the immune system
  • Pregnant women with heart disease

The government says it will work with local authorities, supermarkets and the armed forces to ensure they get supplies of essential food and medicines.

Others in the same household, and carers, can go out as long they observe proper social distancing.

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