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Social distancing, self-isolation and shielding

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's staying at home and only leaving for the limited reasons defined by the Government. When you're outside of your home you should stay at least two metres away from other people.

Everyone should be doing it. If you're over 70 or have existing health conditions where possible, see if friends neighbours or family can pick up prescriptions and food for you and try to exercise inside the house.


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

Anyone displaying symptoms for 7 days. It's 14 days for those living with someone displaying symptoms.


It's a type of self-isolation, which involves not leaving your home for any reason until the end of June to reduce your risk of contracting coronavirus. 

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

If 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.

Social distancing

This means people who are not 'extremely vulnerable' should only leave the house for limited purposes. From Wednesday 13 May these are: 

  1. To go to shops that are allowed to be open to buy things like food and medicine or to collect items you have ordered over the phone or online. 
  2. For leisure purposes in outdoor spaces. You may exercise outside as much as you like, but should stay 2 metres away from anyone who is not part of your household. You can also sit outside and rest.  
  3. Any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person. 
  4. Travelling to and from work, but only where this cannot be done from home. Avoid public transport if possible. 

The Government has made clear that these reasons are exceptions and you should not otherwise leave your home. 

For these activities you should continue to observe the advice to stay at least 2 metres apart from others (excluding members of your own household). 

Unless you are with members of your household, gatherings of more than 2 people in parks and public spaces have been banned. 

If you are aged 70 or over, pregnant, or have a long-term condition, you are more at risk, so you may want to think about asking someone to pick up medication and food for you where possible, as well as doing any exercise indoors or, if you have one, in your garden and take extra steps to minimise time spent outside the home.  


If you or someone in your household has symptoms of the virus – a dry cough, a loss or changed sense of taste or smell and/or a high temperature – then the Government has instructed you to ‘self-isolate’ at home. Current advice is to self-isolate at home for 7 days if you have symptoms, or 14 days if it is another member of your household.

Either way, this means you have to avoid all social contact, remaining in your home and only allowing essential visitors, such as NHS or care workers.

If you need to have something delivered or if family and friends are bringing shopping or other essentials, then they should drop them to the doorstep.

If you are considered in the ‘at risk’ group, your letter from the NHS will provide you with more information about how you can get support at home with shopping for essentials.

What do I do if I live in a shared space?

If you live with others there are some simple steps and precautions to take if you have symptoms, including:

  • Staying physically apart as much as possible. Sleep in separate rooms and use different bathrooms if you can, and minimise the amount of time you spend in shared spaces such as the kitchen. Try and stay at least 2 metres (3 steps) apart.
  • Regularly disinfecting frequently used surfaces such as kitchen counters.
  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. Make sure to sneeze or cough into tissues, your elbow or sleeve. Dispose of tissues straight afterwards.
  • Don’t share food or use the same towels or crockery. Make sure anything has been washed thoroughly before it’s used by someone else.


Some government guidance has changed from Wednesday 13 May. These changes DO NOT affect people who have been identified as extremely clinically vulnerable. People in this group should continue to shield as detailed below.

To help reduce their chance of catching the virus, those who have been identified as 'extremely vulnerable' are advised not leave the house at all until the end of June, for any reason. You should only allow essential visitors, such as NHS or care workers or people care for you (including family members) with things such as washing, dressing or feeding.

The people that are considered extremely vulnerable include:

  • People who’ve received solid organ transplants.
  • People with severe respiratory conditions including all cystic fibrosis, severe asthma and severe COPD.
  • People with rare diseases and inborn errors of metabolism that significantly increase the risk of infections (such as SCID, homozygous sickle cell).
  • People on immunosuppression therapies which significantly increase the risk of infection.
  • Women who are pregnant with significant heart disease, congenital or acquired.
  • People with cancer who are undergoing active chemotherapy or radical radiotherapy for lung cancer.
  • People with cancers of the blood or bone marrow such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma who are at any stage of treatment.
  • People having immune therapy or other continuing antibody treatments for cancer.
  • People having other targeted cancer treatments which can affect the immune system, such as protein kinase inhibitors or PARP inhibitors.
  • People who have had bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the last 6 months, or who are still taking immunosuppression drugs.
  • People with kidney disease.

If you are considered 'extremely vulnerable' you should receive a letter from the NHS or your GP.

However, we understand that this is a big and likely difficult ask, you may have questions about how to deal with this.

Below we have answered some of the key questions you may have and what you can do to maintain your health and wellbeing whilst shielding.

NHS England have produced a Q and A document which may be able to answer some of your questions too.

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Last updated: May 18 2020

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