What’s the difference between social distancing and self-isolation?

What’s the difference between social distancing and self-isolation?

For the latest advice on how to respond to the coronavirus, please consult the World Health Organization or take guidance from your local government health organisation.

Social distancing and isolation measures are being stepped up around the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), distancing and isolating yourself from others is an extremely important and proven way of helping to stop yourself and others catching the virus. 

But what exactly is social distancing, how does it differ to self-isolation, and what does WHO recommend that we all should be doing as a bare minimum? 

Social distancing

Social distancing is a measure designed to limit and restrict your face-to-face interactions with other people. If fewer people come into physical contact with each other, the chance of people sharing and perpetuating the spread of the disease.

Who should be social distancing?

At this time, everyone should be making efforts to reduce their social contact with others and implement social distancing measures in their lives. 

If followed, the measures will help to slow the spread of the disease which will reduce the pressure on health services overwhelmed by patients suffering from the symptoms of coronavirus.

How do I practice social distancing?

  • In line with WHO’s advice, you should only leave your home for essential reasons:
    • Buying food or medical supplies.
    • Caring for a vulnerable person.
    • Going to essential work.
    • Taking some form of exercise.
  • You should not socialise with anyone outside of the people in your home, whether in a large or small group, at home or in public.
  • Do not have people over to your home and do not socialise with friends or family at their homes. Keep in touch using remote technology like video calls or texting.
  • Work from home unless working from home is impossible in your role or you are a key worker, eg a nurse or teacher.
  • If you do have to go out, stay at least three steps (two metres or six feet) away from anyone else.
  • Make sure you wash your hands frequently and thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. When you return home from anywhere, you must wash your hands.


Self-isolation is a measure designed for anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus or who is confirmed to have the coronavirus. It means staying at home in one room and not leaving your home for any reason.

Social isolation is the most effective way of halting the spread of the virus.

Who should be self-isolating?

Following advice from Public Health England, anyone who has symptoms of the coronavirus should be self-isolating at home for seven days.

If you live with someone who is showing symptoms of the coronavirus, you must also self-isolate for 14 days, even if you are not showing any symptoms. 

This is because the virus has a 14 day incubation period so you may be carrying coronavirus without yet showing symptoms. The 14 day period begins from the day the person showing symptoms first became ill. 

If you do become ill in this 14 day isolation period, you must start a new 7 day isolation period. This means you could be self-isolating for up to 21 days.

How do I self-isolate?

  • Do not leave the house. Do not go to work, do not go to supermarkets, and do not go out into public areas.
  • Order food supplies online or ask people to help deliver food or medical supplies to you.
  • Avoid having visitors in your home. If anyone delivers supplies, make sure they leave them outside of your door and that you do not come into contact with the person delivering items.
  • If you live with people, try to contain yourself to one well-ventilated room if possible. Keep three steps (two metres or six feet) from anyone else in your home at any time. If you live with vulnerable people, try to move them out of your home to stay with friends or family if possible.
  • If you feel well and need to exercise, stay well away from others, at least adhering to the six feet away rule.
  • Sleep alone if you are able to.
  • Make sure everyone in your home is washing their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds at a time and disinfecting any shared areas. Dispose of any waste eg tissues in a double bag and keep away from other household waste for at least 72 hours to avoid contamination. 

Social distancing and self-isolation are extreme measures which are dramatically affecting how most people live their lives.

Though it is challenging, it is the only way we can collectively attempt to slow the coronavirus outbreak. The more people who comply with these regulations, the sooner our lives will return to normal.

If you’d like to learn more about the coronavirus outbreak and its impact around the world, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has created a completely free online course, COVID-19: Tackling the Novel Coronavirus, for anyone who’d like to know more.

If you’re a healthcare professional, St George’s University of London has created a course, Managing COVID-19 in General Practice, designed to support front-line clinicians to keep their primary care practice running safely.

Or, if you’d like to explore courses to learn new things and distract yourself during this difficult time, take a look at our courses for keeping busy during isolation and check out our blog on ways to stay cultural whilst isolating at home.