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Shielding, social distancing and self-isolation

Social distancing, self-isolation and shielding are aimed at reducing close contact with others, however, there are some important differences. Here's what they might mean for you. 

What should I be doing?

This table explains what these terms mean and what you should do. There's more detailed information about each of these terms below.

  What does it mean? Who has to do it?
Social distancing

It means limiting our contact with people outside of our household and taking precautions to stay safe when going out. All of us should try to stay two metres away from people outside of our household or support bubble. Where this is not possible, we must follow the 1m plus rule- which means staying at least 1m away, while taking additional precautions, such as wearing a face covering if you can (in some settings it is now mandatory to wear face coverings, for more info see here).

Everyone should be doing it. If you're over 70 or have existing health conditions you may want to take extra precautions, such as only meeting up with people in outside spaces or visiting places at times where they are likely to be less busy.


It's avoiding contact with others (even those you live with) and not leaving your home for any reason.

You will need to self-isolate if: 

  • You or anyone in your household has symptoms of coronavirus or has tested positive for coronavirus. 
  • You have been contacted by the test and trace service and advised to self-isolate. 
  • You have travelled back from a country which is not on the UK’s exemption list and which requires you to quarantine.
It means strictly reducing your movements and staying inside as much as possible. Currently, people who were advised to shield, no longer need to shield but there are extra precautions that you should take to stay safe based on the coronavirus alert level in your area.

Anyone who has been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable due to particular health conditions. 

If you need urgent medical help, whether or not you have coronavirus symptoms, you should contact 111.

In an emergency, or if you are in immediate danger, call 999. If you are unable to speak, press 55 on a mobile.


At the moment, even if you were advised to shield before, you don't need to shield now. This is the case even if you live in a Tier 3 – Very High Alert area.

The Government has put certain guidelines in place for everyone but recommended extra precautions for those that were shielding depending on the risk in your area. 

There is a chance that you may be asked to follow stricter shielding measures than the precautions outlined below, based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and local public health officials. If this is the case, you'll be written to outlining new guidance and support options. 

For those in Tier 1 – Medium Alert:
  • You can meet with people indoors and outdoors but not in a group of more than 6 people.
  • You should maintain strict social distancing measures from anyone not in your household or support bubble.
  • Continue to work from home where possible – but you can go to work if you're unable to work from home.
  • You should limit journeys on public transport.
For those in Tier 2 – High Alert:
  • Reduce the number of people you meet with and shouldn't meeting with people that aren't in your household or support bubble indoors – this includes pubs and restaurants.
  • When meeting outside, don't meet up in groups of more than 6. This includes in people's gardens.
  • Continue to work from home if possible. 
  • Don't make any unnecessary journeys – essential journeys would include things such as going to work (if you can't work from home) and doing your shopping.
  • Try and shop at quieter times and only when you need to. Family and friends, or NHS Volunteer Responders might be able to help you get the things you need.
For those in Tier 3 – Very High Alert:
  • Stay at home as much as possible. 
  • Don't meet with anyone that isn't in your household or support bubble in any indoor or private outdoor settings (such as gardens). 
  • You can still meet others in groups of up to 6 in public outdoor spaces such as parks and beaches.
  • You're strongly advised to work from home if you can.
  • You can go outside to exercise but avoid busier areas.
  • Don't make any unnecessary journeys – essential journeys would include things such as going to work (if you can't work from home) and doing your shopping.
  • Try and shop at quieter times and only when you need to. Family and friends, or NHS Volunteer Responders might be able to help you get the things you need.
  • Contact your local council as they might be able to offer more support if you need it. 

Do you know your local alert level?

All areas in England are currently in one of three local alert levels. You can find out the alert level in your area on the Government website.

If you, or someone you live with, were advised to shield over lockdown you should be eligible for a free flu vaccine.

Social distancing

All of us should still be limiting our social contact with people outside of our households and continuing to take precautions to keep ourselves and others safe.   

The following guidance was updated on the 22 September and applies to everyone, including those who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable and have been shielding, although if you are in an area effected by a local lockdown you should check local advice.

  • When spending time with people you don’t live with or who aren’t in your support bubble, you can meet in groups of up to six, inside or outside. Children count as part of this group of six. It is illegal to meet in groups larger than six and you may be fined for doing so. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example you can meet in groups of more than six for work or charitable purposes. Our coronavirus page has a list of these exemptions.
  • When spending time with people you don’t live with or who aren’t in your support bubble, you should try to stay at least 2 metres away from one another. If this isn’t possible, you should try to follow the one-metre plus rule, which means staying one-metre apart while taking extra precautions, such as wearing a face covering, going outside where the risks of transmission are lower, or making sure the space is well-ventilated, by opening windows or doors. Make sure that you wash your hands with soap and warm water regularly.
  • Single-adult households in England can join up with one other household to create a support bubble. This applies to both people living alone and single parents with children under the age of 18 at home. Being in a support bubble with another household means that you can spend time with each other in inside spaces, without needing to keep your distance. Find out more by visiting our page on support bubbles.

If you are over 70 or living with a long-term health condition or have previously been shielding, then you are at increased risk from coronavirus. Going outside more often will bring with it some risk but for many people the benefits to their mental and physical well-being will outweigh this. Deciding what you are comfortable with is a personal choice and you should not feel pressured into doing anything more you want to. If you do want to take extra precautions, there are some things you can do:

  • Meet up with people outdoors, as the risk of transmission is lower outside than inside. If you do meet up with people outside of your household in an indoor space, it is best to do so in larger, well-ventilated places. If you go to other people’s houses or have people to yours, open windows and doors to let air in.
  • Limit the number of people that you spend time with from outside of your household or support bubble as the more people you come into contact with the higher the risk of transmission. 
  • Avoid visiting places which are likely to be busy or where it will be difficult for you to keep your distance from others. You could try going at times when they are likely to be quieter, such as in the morning or during the weekday. Some supermarkets have protected hours available for people who are more vulnerable.

All of us should carry on washing our hands regularly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. It’s a good idea to carry hand sanitiser with you. Avoid touching your face and eyes when you are outside of your home. 


To help stop the spread of coronavirus it's important that anyone required to self-isolate does so. But knowing who has to self-isolate, for how long and the rules about what you can and can't do can seem daunting. We've outlined them below.

Who has to self-isolate?

You will need to self-isolate if you:

  • develop symptoms of coronavirus and are waiting for a test
  • have tested positive for coronavirus
  • live in a household or are part of a support bubble where somebody has a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus
  • have been contacted by the test and trace service and told you have been in contact with someone with coronavirus and advised to self-isolate
  • have returned from a country which is outside of the UK's common travel area and which requires you to quarantine.

What are the rules if I have to self-isolate?

If you are self-isolating then you shouldn't leave your house at all. This includes going to work, doing the shopping or doing any exercise outside your home. You also shouldn't have any visitors at all, even family or friends.

The only exception is if you have a carer. Carers can still come into your home, but you must let them know you're self-isolating so they can take any necessary precautions. 

If you have any health appointments when you should be self-isolating, you need to contact the hospital or your GP and let them know the situation. In most cases, your appointment will simply be rearranged. However, in some circumstances, such as life-saving treatment, they're very likely to still go ahead. 

Do I have to self-isolate?

Yes, if required, you must self-isolate. From 28 September you can be fined up to £10,000 if you don't self-isolate after testing positive for coronavirus or being contacted by the test and trace service.

It's also illegal to provide any false information about who you've been in contact with to the test and trace service. 

What support is available if I have to self-isolate?

You might be worried about how you'll get your shopping and other essentials, such as prescriptions, if you're asked to self-isolate. See if friends, family or neighbours are happy to pick up what you need. However, they won't be able to pop in when they drop it off, they'll have to leave it outside. 

There are other options:

  • Consider ordering your shopping online or over the phone (someone else can do this for you).
  • You can get help with food and essentials through the NHS volunteers programme by calling 0808 196 3646.
  • Your local Age UK might be able to offer help. You can find the details of your local Age UK by entering your postcode here. You can also call our advice line on 0800 678 1602 and we might be able to help book a delivery slot for your shopping. 
  • The Government have information about accessing food and supplies, you can find that here
  • If you have no other means of support or you're in a local lockdown, contact your local council to find out what support's available in your area. 

What if I can't go to work because I'm self-isolating?

If you can't go to work because you have to self-islolate, and this means you won't earn any money, from 28 September you might be entitled to a one-off payment of £500 through the Test and Trace Support Programme Scheme. To be eligible, you must:

  • have been asked to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace service
  • be employed or self-employed
  • be unable to work from home and will lose income as a result
  • be claiming at least one of the following benefits
    • Universal Credit
    • Working Tax Credits
    • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
    • Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
    • Income Support
    • Pension Credit
    • Housing Benefit

How can I make self-isolating easier?

As the test and trace programme is used more widely, it's likely some of us will need to self-isolate at some point and it can seem daunting. But you can do some things to make it that bit easier:

  • Think about things you might need, such as prescriptions and supplies. You don't need to stockpile, but just make sure you have what you'll need.
  • Keep a list of useful phone numbers handy, such as your local Age UK or your GP, in case you need some support.
  • If you're a carer, think about alternative arrangements if you can't leave the house.
  • Think about how you can stay busy or tick some jobs off while you have to stay at home – maybe it's the time to get your Christmas cards done and out of the way?
  • Keep in contact with people. Just because you can't see them face to face, you should still give them a ring and have a chat. 
  • Ask for help if you need it. It can be a difficult time, but if you need help with anything, don't hesitate to reach out to someone. 
  • Stay active as best you can. It's certainly trickier in the house, but make a point of trying to do what you can around the house to keep yourself moving. 

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Last updated: Oct 14 2020

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