What Am I Actually Allowed To Do Now? An Expert Decodes The Coronavirus Lockdown Rules

Tom Nicholson
Photo credit: Richard Baker - Getty Images

From Esquire

We all know that listening to the science on coronavirus is really important, especially now, but the government's come in for a lot of criticism over its advice to us during the coronavirus crisis.

"I cannot stand here and tell you that by the end of June that we will be on the downward slope," Johnson said on 20 March. "It's possible but I simply can't say that that's for certain. We don't know how long this thing will go on for. But what I can say is that this is going to be finite."

Translation: it'll be ending at some point before the Rapture. Crystal clear. Since then we've moved into full-on lockdown, with stringent measures in place to stop people passing coronavirus around.

So what can you do and what can't you do? Where should you go and where shouldn't you go? What's safe and what's potentially unwise? When we spoke to Professor Lucy Yardley, who's co-director of research at the Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Health and Care at the University of Bristol, and who worked on a very handy guide to protecting yourself from coronavirus, on 21 March she said it wasn't quite that simple.

"It's very difficult to give definitive answers, because basically it's not a black and white thing. Any activity that you do outside the home, assuming that [coronavirus] hasn't got inside your home already, obviously increases your risk of infection. Some things increase it more than others, and the government advice is changing daily. They're trying to strike a balance between letting society still function, especially the absolutely vital parts – food, transport infrastructure and so on – and stopping the spread of the virus."

Instead, Prof Yardley suggests, it's helpful to think of activities on a traffic light scale: red is a definite no, orange is a maybe depending on circumstances, and green is fine with sensible precautions: "The things that will probably never be locked down".

As we say, the government is giving daily updates on the best way stop coronavirus spreading at press conferences, but this is the state of things right now. We'll be updating this page regularly as the situation changes.

What does the new advice change? What can’t I do that I could before?

Monday evening's address from Johnson changed pretty much everything. Every "non-essential" shop is closed, as are libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship. They were pretty much the only places still open after Friday's order to close pubs, restaurants and places you'd usually hang out and have a big laugh. Weddings and baptisms are off too. You can still exercise, but only for one session a day outside. Don't take the piss and go for a four-hour run though. The London marathon's been punted to autumn anyway.

You can go outside to pick up food from the shops – "infrequently", the government insists – or to look after a vulnerable person, or to get to and from work if it's "absolutely necessary". That last one, like a lot of the government's guidance, is kind of open to interpretation, but really you shouldn't be going anywhere.

Why can’t I go to the pub? Or, you know, anywhere else?

On Friday 21 March, a few hours after we spoke to Prof Yardley, the government finally announced that it would force pubs, restaurants, bars, clubs, cinemas, theatres and leisure centres to close until further notice.

The government had taken a lot of flak for discouraging people from going to pubs, restaurants, theatres and other places where you'd usually hang out and have fun, but not outright banning them. It meant the businesses can't claim any insurance payouts and are struggling to keep their heads above water. They were open, but not for anyone to drink in. They were Schrödinger's pubs.

But why is it important to close places where people would hang out? Could we not just have a pint two metres away from each other?

"It's not just the people that are in front of you, it's the person that was there. It's the person that was using that glass that may not have been cleaned quite as much as you'd like. And, of course, it may be you, just before you go down with it. Bars are the worst: people's inhibitions go, they hug each other, they breathe right in each other's faces and your immune system is down because you're suppressing it with alcohol. It's just not worth it really." Sounds like a solid red.

People are still using the Tube. Is it safer to get the bus? Should I be going anywhere?

If you live in London, Tube services are being cut down and 40 stations have been shut. Sadiq Khan really wants you to stop moving around if you don't need to.

"I can't say this clearly enough," the mayor said on 20 March. "People should not be travelling by any means unless they absolutely must. The scientific advice on this is very clear. Londoners should be avoiding social interaction unless absolutely necessary."

There isn't really a 'safest' form of public transport either.

"It just takes one person to have been there before you got on and left lots of the virus around, or while you're there," says Yardley. "You wouldn't necessarily know that the person that was in your seat 10 minutes ago was coughing their guts up all over it."

All of which makes the lack of guidance on how to get to hospital without using public transport or a taxi all the more puzzling.

Is it safe to go for a jog? Are there places I should and shouldn’t run?

This one's a green, though you're best off sticking to parks and open spaces where you can keep some distance from other people. You're only allowed one outdoor exercise session a day and taking exercise on your own is best – in fact, all gatherings of more than two are out of bounds – but just being outside doesn't make you or anyone else less infectious.

"If you do cough, make sure that you look far away from people," says Yardley. "When you jog you expel air from your chest much more vigorously than usual so look away from people as you pass them otherwise you might be puffing air on them, and you might have an infection you don't know about yet. You're also pulling in air more when you're jogging." Walking is less risky, but both are relatively safe. Exercise is also essential if you're not going to lose your marbles.

What about the gym?

Gyms are shut too, buddy, by order of the government.

I’m going to need to walk the dog. Is that alright?

That's bang in the green, says Prof Yardley, "as long as you stay six feet away from everybody, and make sure you don't cough on anything". That includes your dog. They can't catch it, but still, they don't need that.

Will it be OK if I take my kids to the park?

Green! "Taking your kids to the park in principle would be OK, if you're sure they're not going to meet any other children. If you take them out to the middle of the woods or something, that's probably better because everyone else is going to be in the park." Whether you can catch Covid-19 at a teddy bear's picnic is, currently, unclear.

Can I have my mates round? They’re not coughing or anything yet.

No. No, no, no. Noooooooo. Nope. Absolutely not. Gatherings of more than two people are out of the question, aside from people in your household. It's just you and your flatmates/partner/family for the foreseeable. Children whose parents live in different houses will be allowed to move between them though.

What about getting the train across the country? Does it matter where I’m going to and from?

Not a good idea. "If you go to a different city, the risk is you'll transmit between cities," says Yardley, and the whole point of the self-isolation thing is to slow the spread of coronavirus across the country and give the NHS time and capacity to treat people. Travelling out of London to visit friends in other cities isn't advised, as infection rates are far higher in the capital and you're likely to speed up the spread of coronavirus that way.

"And equally if you're going into London – everyone who's outside of London should avoid it if they possibly can, because they don't want to bring back infection from there."

I’ve got annual leave booked. Obviously international travel’s off, but can I go on holiday in the UK?

Buddy! Lockdown! Does! Not! Mean! Going! On! Holiday!

If I’ve got symptoms, how long do I self-isolate? Two weeks? More?

This one's got a lot of people confused. The government and NHS say: "If you live alone and you have symptoms of coronavirus illness (Covid-19), however mild, stay at home for seven days from when your symptoms started.

"If you live with others and you are the first in the household to have symptoms of coronavirus, then you must stay at home for seven days, but all other household members who remain well must stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days. The 14-day period starts from the day when the first person in the house became ill."

I’ve got asthma, does that mean I’ve got to self-isolate for three months? That’s ages.

The government says people with conditions that put them in the 'at risk' category, including asthma, must "be particularly stringent in following social distancing measures". Those measures are pretty extensive, and you can read them all here. Johnson said yesterday that 'at risk' groups need to be "largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks".

"If you look at the death rate in other countries, to be honest asthma doesn't look top of the list – COPD, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, cancer seem to be higher on the list," says Yardley. "But asthma is on there."

Are there any other green-rated activities I could be doing?

Obviously things are a lot more restricted than they were, but there are still some opportunities for safe interaction. Yardley is working on putting some together at the moment, and has heard about initiatives where streets sign up to a big group chat to give each other social and emotional support from the safety of their own gardens.

If you're sensible though, there's actually a lot you can do. "I think people can come up with their own, and as long as you stick to the rules – don't touch something that's been touched by somebody else unless it's been disinfected, stay six feet or more apart outside the home," says Prof Yardley. "After that, get going with your imagination."

That's off the table for now, but when things ease up a little it's worth bearing in mind.

The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more advice, visit the following recommended websites:

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