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Coronavirus and COVID-19

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

With all the talk about social distancing, shielding and self-isolation, it's important to know what all 3 mean.


Self-isolation means staying at home. You must self-isolate if:

  • you have symptoms of coronavirus and are waiting for the results of a test
  • you have received a positive COVID-19 test result, whether or not you have symptoms
  • you live in the same household (or support or childcare bubble) as someone with COVID-19 symptoms, or with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19

Self-isolation means staying at home and not going out for the full isolation period. Do not leave your home to walk (in a park or anywhere else) or to visit schools or other public places. You should not have any visitors and you should ask people to leave deliveries for you outside.

It's a legal requirement to self-isolate if you are told to do so. You could be fined if you do not self-isolate.

If you are self-isolating because you have had a positive coronavirus test, or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, you should try and take steps to reduce the spread of coronavirus within your household. This means:

  • limiting contact with other people in your home. Try to keep at least 3 steps (2 metres) away from others, particularly people over 70 or with a long-term condition
  • using a separate bathroom and separate towels from the rest of your household, if possible
  • sleeping alone if you can.

Read the full guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus cases on the government website.

Social distancing

Social distancing is the guidance that applies to everyone, unless you are self-isolating or practising shielding.

It is the term used to describe staying at least 2 metres away from people you do not live with. Effective social distancing will prevent the spread of coronavirus.

You can help control the spread of coronavirus by following the social distancing guidance, washing your hands regularly, working from home if you can and using a face covering.

Social distancing guidelines vary between the 4 nations, so it’s worth looking at the detailed guidance in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.


People who are at a higher risk of becoming severely ill if they were to catch coronavirus, belong to a group called clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV). 

At the start of the pandemic, this group were advised to practise shielding. Shielding is a way to limit CEV people from coming into contact with coronavirus by minimising all interaction between them and other people.

In all 4 nations there is guidance specifically for people in the CEV group. If you are in this group, you should take extra caution and follow the guidance for where you live stringently. Read more about the different guidance for CEV people across the UK:

People in this group who think they’ve developed coronavirus symptoms of coronavirus should get advice from the NHS 111 online service or call NHS 111 as soon as they get symptoms.

What you can read next:

Last updated: Tuesday 26 January 2021


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Last medically reviewed: July 2021. Due for review: July 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.