Coronavirus: What is social distancing and will it stop the outbreak spreading in the UK?

Sarah Young, Sabrina Barr
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[Editor's note: the government has now advised that the public may only leave home if they are buying food or medicine, going to work as a key worker or doing one form of exercise per day].

Following the coronavirus outbreak, prime minister Boris Johnson has issued a number of guidelines for the general public to follow in order to prevent the disease from spreading.

One of the most important measures the UK government has introduced is social distancing, which is designed to reduce social interaction between people in order to slow the transmission of Covid-19.

But what exactly does social distancing mean and will it prevent the outbreak from spreading further? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is social distancing?

According to Public Health England, the coronavirus can be spread when people with it have close, sustained contact with others 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.

As a result, the government has implemented social distancing, to prevent people interacting at close distances.

Practising safe social distancing includes:

  • Avoiding contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). These symptoms include high temperature and/or new and continuous cough
  • Avoiding non-essential use of public transport when possible
  • Working from home, where possible. Your employer should support you to do this
  • Avoiding large and small gatherings in public spaces, noting that pubs, restaurants, leisure centres and similar venues are currently shut as infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together
  • Avoiding gatherings with friends and family. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media
  • Using telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential service

What has the government said about social distancing?

On the government’s website, it outlines guidance on social distancing for people in the UK.

It states that the guidance is “for everyone, including children” and advises that social distancing measures are something "we should all be taking to reduce social interaction between people in order to reduce the transmission of coronavirus”.

“It is intended for use in situations where people are living in their own homes, with or without additional support from friends, family and carers,” the government said.

“We are advising those who are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus (Covid-19) to be particularly stringent in following social distancing measures.”

On the government’s website, it includes a list of the people in the high-risk category. Click here for more information.

On 12 March, the government announced it was moving out of the “contain” phase into the “delay” phase.

On 23 March, the UK was placed in a state of lockdown, with people only advised to leave their homes to carry out activities such as going to the supermarket or doing one form of daily outdoor exercise.

How will these measures help prevent the spread of the infection?

By limiting the amount of contact people have with each other, PHE states that it is possible to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

The organisation adds that social distancing is not a new concept, explaining that 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.

How has public transport been affected?

It was recently announced that Transport for London will run a reduced service in the capital so that critical workers can still make essential journeys throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

From Friday 20 March, the Waterloo and City line and the Night Tube were no longer running.

Furthermore, up to 40 London Underground stations that do not interchange with other lines are to be closed until further notice.

The transport secretary recently suggested that airlines, railway operators and bus companies could be temporarily nationalised to ensure transport keeps running.

Various regions of the UK are making public transport available to NHS staff for free amid the coronavirus pandemic.

How have schools been impacted?

Having previously decided to keep schools open despite requesting that people work from home if possible, it was recently announced that schools in England would be shut from Friday 20 March until further notice.

However, children of key workers will still be able to go to school if their parents are required to work.

The move, which was unveiled by education secretary Gavin Williamson, followed Scotland and Wales.

According to Great Ormond Street Hospital, current evident shows that although children are able to contract the coronavirus, “very few children will develop a severe infection with Covid-19, whether they are immune-compromised or not”.

PHE adds that the current evidence “is that children with coronavirus get much less severe symptoms than adults”.

The organisation previously acknowledged that closing schools would be disruptive for both children and parents and said it was working with the Department for Education to look at alternative ways to deliver education and classes and reduce the impact on examinations.

How long will social distancing go on for?

On Friday 20 March, it was reported that the UK could face close to a year of social distancing measures in an effort to safeguard the NHS’s ability to cope with the coronavirus.

The prime minister announced on Monday 23 March that the country had been placed in a state of lockdown.

Mr Johnson said the measures were being put in place for three weeks, following which a review will be held to assess the situation.

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