Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation?

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People have been urged to keep a distance

The UK government has taken further action to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Shops selling non-essential items have closed, along with libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship.

Weddings and baptisms are banned but funerals are still allowed.

Gatherings of more than two people not from the same household are banned.

People are only to do one form of outdoor exercise a day on their own or with a member of their household.

The other acceptable reasons to leave the house are:

  • shopping for basic necessities, although this should be done as little as possible
  • medical need or to provide care for a vulnerable person
  • travel to or from work but only where this is absolutely necessary

The government has also said that key workers may leave the house to take their children to school and that children may move between the homes of separated parents.

What should I be doing?

If people have to go outside – to buy food for example – they must stay more than 2m (6.5ft) apart from others.

Cafes, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres have also been told to close. The move is part of social distancing measures to minimise non-essential contact.

People with flu-like symptoms – such as a dry cough and high temperature – have been asked to self-isolate at home to avoid infecting others.

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Media captionAfter Boris Johnson brings in new measures, the BBC explains why staying in is a matter of life and death

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.

The less time people spend together, the less chance there is of this happening.

What is self-isolation?

Self-isolating means staying at home and not leaving it, other than for exercise. Don’t go to work, school or public areas during this time.

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 problem – 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 see their seven-day isolation begin then – for their illness rather than to monitor for symptoms – 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 being referred to as shielding.

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

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.

What happens if you have a vulnerable person living with you during self-isolation?

You should keep at least 2m away from a vulnerable person (such as pregnant women, the elderly or those with an underlying health condition) during any period of isolation, according to Public Health England.

Limit time spent together in shared spaces such as kitchens, and keep all rooms well-ventilated. If they can, the vulnerable person should take their meals back to their room to eat.

A vulnerable person should use separate towels from the rest of the household. If possible, they should use a separate bathroom. If that is not possible, the bathroom should be cleaned every time it’s used (for example, wiping surfaces with which you have come into contact).

People living with someone in isolation should wash their hands often, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds – especially after coming into contact with them.

Personal waste (such as tissues) should be double-bagged and put aside for 72 hours before being put in your outside bin.

What about other countries?

Other countries have also been taking steps to limit the spread of the virus:

  • India has imposed a three-week lockdown on its population of 1.3 billion people.
  • The whole of Italy has been on lockdown since 9 March
  • Italy’s Lombardy region banned outdoor exercise away from personal property
  • In Spain, people are banned from leaving home unless they are buying food, or medicines, or working
  • Several US states have introduced restrictions, with tens of millions of people ordered to stay at home
  • In Belgium, all non-essential shops have been closed and residents have been told to remain at home until at least 5 April. Walking and exercise are allowed, but a safe distance must be maintained. All social gatherings are banned
  • France is in a strict 15-day lockdown, with citizens required to carry official paperwork stating why they are not at home. More than 100,000 police officers are enforcing the measures, with a 135 euro (£126) fine for those who break it
  • Meetings of more than two have been banned in Germany. One German state, Bavaria, has implemented a full lockdown for its citizens
  • Various countries in South America are also operating a “stay at home” policy, including Argentina and Colombia

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