This is why social distancing is important - and why the official government guidance works

The government is urging people to reduce their social contact (Photo: Shutterstock)The government is urging people to reduce their social contact (Photo: Shutterstock)
The government is urging people to reduce their social contact (Photo: Shutterstock)

As the number of cases of coronavirus in the UK continues to climb, the government is urging people to follow its guidance on social distancing in an effort to contain the spread.

The government is currently advising Britons to avoid unnecessary social contact and travel amid the health pandemic, but there are fears the country could be put under full lockdown if people fail to follow the advice.

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What is social distancing?

Social distancing simply means reducing the amount of social interaction with other people, in an effort to reduce the transmission of coronavirus.

The government has urged people to avoid all contact with anyone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus, including a high temperature and a new continuous cough, and abide by the following measures:

- Avoid non-essential use of public transport when possible

- Work from home, where possible. Your employer should support you to do this. Refer to employer guidance for more information

- Avoid 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

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- Avoid gatherings with friends and family. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media

- Use telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services

While the government advice states that people can still go for a walk or exercise outdoors, they’re stressing that people must stay more than two metres away from others.

Everyone has been urged to follow these measures as much as they practically can, and to significantly limit face-to-face interactions where possible.

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This is particularly important if you are over the age of 70, have an underlying health condition, or you are pregnant.

If anyone in your home is symptomatic, the whole household should stay at home for 14 days to avoid the spread of infection.

Those who live alone should isolate themselves for seven days.

Why is social distancing important?

Social distancing is hugely important as it effectively reduces further transmission of the virus, and also helps to lessen the strain on the already overstretched NHS.

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Without such measures in place, someone who has coronavirus can be expected to infect around three other people over the course of their infection.

These three newly infected individuals can then be expected to cause three further infections, which will then likely be spread again, creating a chain of transmission that can lead to thousands of cases.

However, by reducing social contact the chain of transmission becomes much smaller, meaning those who are infected will only infect up to two other people over the course of their infection.

While the virus can still be transmitted to others in a household, if those individuals all self-isolate it ensures the infection won’t be passed on any further, helping to significantly cut the total number of people who get infected and reduce the overall spread.

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Will the UK be put on lockdown?

Several countries, including China, Italy and France, have already been put under lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, and there are growing concerns the UK could be next.

In most countries affected by lockdowns, residents are still allowed out to stock up on supplies from grocery stores, or to exercise at a safe distance from others.

If the UK is to be forced into lockdown, it is expected the country will take a similar approach, with the public banned from all non-essential movements.

While the drastic measure has not yet been announced, if it is implemented it is expected to last for at least “several months”, and possibly up to a year to allow the country to get over the worst of the virus.

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The UK is currently only advising people to follow social distancing measures, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned the government “may have to take further action” if people continue to flout social distancing rules of staying two metres away from each other.

Mr Hancock told Sky News: "This is not the sort of thing that anybody would want to do but, of course, it is the sort of thing we might have to do in order to protect life.

"If you do go out, you must not get closer than two metres from someone who isn't in your household.

"It is a really simple rule and incredibly important, because to protect life and the NHS we need to stop the spread of this virus and the virus spreads by people coming into close contact with each other."

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The Health Secretary condemned the behaviour of people ignoring social-distancing rules as "very selfish".

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But, similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore, covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

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What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Government advice

As of Monday 16 March the government advised that everyone should be observing social distancing - avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home where possible. Anyone with a cough or cold symptoms now needs to self-isolate with their entire household for 14 days.

The government has now instructed bars, restaurants and theatres to close and will review on a ‘month to month’ basis. Schools closed from Friday 20 March for the foreseeable future, and exams have been cancelled.

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The over 70s or anyone who is vulnerable or living with an underlying illness are being asked to be extra careful and stay at home to self-isolate. People with serious underlying health conditions will be contacted and strongly advised to undertake "shielding" for 12 weeks.

For more information on government advice, please check their website

Should I avoid public places?

The advice now is to avoid public places and any non-essential travel. Travel abroad is also being advised against for the next 30 days at least, and many European countries have closed their borders.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

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NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS