Governments around the world are responding to the covid-19 pandemic, and social distancing is a central aspect of plans to limit the spread of the virus. But what is social distancing and how do you do it?
What does social distancing mean?
Social distancing practices are changes in behaviour that can help stop the spread of infections. These often include curtailing social contact, work and schooling among seemingly healthy individuals, with a view to delaying transmission and reducing the size of an outbreak.
How do you practice social distancing?
As an individual, you can lower your risk of infection by reducing your rate of contact with other people. Avoiding public spaces and unnecessary social gatherings, especially events with large numbers of people or crowds, will lower the chance that you will be exposed to the new coronavirus as well as to other infectious diseases like flu.
Other measures include working from home if possible, organising meetings via video calls rather than doing them in person and avoiding unnecessary use of public transport, says Stuart Neil at King’s College London.
Social distancing “should be approached sensibly and rationally”, says Neil. If you do have to be out and about, the World Health Organization recommends maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. It is also recommended that you avoid physical contact with others in social situations, including handshakes, hugs and kisses.
Does social distancing work?
There is evidence from previous outbreaks, including the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak, as well as from outbreak simulations, that social distancing can effectively limit the spread of infections. We don’t know exactly how the new coronavirus spreads, but similar viruses are predominantly transmitted by droplets emitted from the mouths and noses of infected people when they cough or sneeze, which can land on surfaces and people’s hands.
How are countries implementing social distancing?
China implemented particularly stringent measures in Hubei province, where the first new coronavirus cases were detected. In addition to quarantining the region and building isolation facilities, the Chinese government used mobile phone tracking to monitor people’s movements and prevent people with confirmed infections from travelling.
Since Italy went into lockdown, many other European countries have imposed travel restrictions and closed schools as well as other public places like restaurants and bars. The European commission has put forward plans to close European Union borders and restrict all non-essential travel in the Schengen area of countries that have no border controls between them. The UK government is advising its citizens to stop all non-essential contact with other people.
What are the potential negative impacts of social distancing?
It has already affected the global economy because people are staying at home and demand for goods and services has fallen.
“Social distancing is a societal effort to contain transmission and it comes at a significant economic cost,” says Kalipso Chalkidou at Imperial College London. “There are always trade-offs,” she says.
Concerns have also been expressed that social distancing could lead to increased loneliness, especially among older people who are at a higher risk of severe covid-19.
How can you maintain social distance from people you live with or care for?
It is recommended to separate yourself from people you live with as much as possible. If you can’t avoid sharing a bathroom or toilet, clean these areas regularly. If you have covid-19 or suspect that you are at risk, the priority should be to avoid transmitting the disease to others, particularly if you are caring for someone vulnerable.