Self-isolation: everything you need to know
Self-isolation is one of the ways currently used to control the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the community. It’s different from social distancing which means staying indoors and avoiding all contact with others. How long you have to self-isolate for will depend on if you have symptoms, if you live with people showing symptoms, or if you’re in any of the risk groups outlined by the government.
What is self-isolating and why is it important?
To self-isolate means to stay indoors and completely avoid contact with other people.
When self-isolating, you should:
- stay at home
- not allow visitors to your home
- ask family and friends or use delivery services to help with grocery shopping or getting medications, and leave the items outside your home
- not go to work, school, nursery, or public areas
- not use public transport like buses, trains or taxis
During a pandemic (worldwide spread of an infection or disease), this will help prevent you from spreading the infection to your family, friends, work colleagues and the community. This means that health services can focus on people who are already ill.
How long do I need to self-isolate for?
The amount of time you have to self-isolate for will depend on which of the following groups you are in.
People with symptoms
If you have symptoms like a high temperature or a continuous cough, the current advice is to self-isolate for 7 days or until your fever resolves. If you still have symptoms, such as a cough, afterwards you no longer need to self-isolate.
If you’re becoming seriously ill with symptoms like breathing difficulties, use the NHS 111 online service for medical advice and support.
Living with someone showing symptoms
If you’re living with someone who starts showing symptoms, you should self-isolate for 14 days. Anyone else in the house should also self-isolate for 14 days. If the person with symptoms is well after 7 days, they can end their self-isolation and do not need to self-isolate for the remaining 7 days.
If others do not show symptoms after 14 days, you can stop self-isolating. If you get symptoms during the 14 days, you should self-isolate for 7 days from when your symptoms started, even if it means you have to self-isolate for more than 14 days continuously.
If you are contacted by test and trace
You may receive a call or email from the government’s test and trace program to alert you that you have recently been in contact with someone that is suspected of having coronavirus. If this is the case, you need to immediately self-isolate for 14 days from the last time you made contact with the person. During this period, the people you live with do not need to self isolate unless you start to show symptoms.
If you’re returning from abroad, the current government advice is to go home straight away and follow the UK’s social distancing measures.
If you have symptoms like a continuous cough or high temperature, you should follow the standard self-isolation guidelines.
Vulnerable people and those in ‘risk groups’
Vulnerable people like those aged over 70, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions are considered to be in ‘risk groups’ and should stay at home and have no physical contact with people outside the house.
People in these high risk groups have been contacted by the NHS and advised to stay at home for at least 12 weeks, and avoid contact with others. This is because they have a higher chance of becoming very ill from coronavirus (COVID-19) if they get infected.
If you need emergency food or medication, there are services you can use.
- Emergency food parcels are being sent to people who are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and have been asked to ‘shield’. You can register as a clinically extremely vulnerable person on the gov.uk website.
If you urgently need medication you should contact whoever normally prescribes your medication, like your GP. If they cannot help, you might be able to get your medication from a pharmacist instead. See the NHS page on emergency medicine supplies for more information.
What to do after self-isolation
After self-isolating, you still need to go back to social distancing measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Social distancing rules are more relaxed than those for self-isolation. They include the following government instructions:
- Go out only for essential trips like buying food and medicine
- You can go out to exercise as often as you need to
- Avoid non-essential use of public transport
- Work from home if possible
- Avoid large and small gatherings in public places including parks and leisure centres
- You may meet with one person from another household if you practice social distancing.
- Avoid visiting family and friends. Stay in touch using remote communication like phone, social media and video calling, using the internet
- If you need to, contact your local GP online or by phone rather than visiting the surgery
Taking care of other people self-isolating
The most important way to help others is to stay at home and maintain social distancing measures. If you would like to help, the current advice is to first make sure you:
- are not pregnant
- are under 70 years
- do not have symptoms of coronavirus like a high temperature or a continuous cough, or live with someone showing symptoms
- do not have any underlying health condition that could make you vulnerable to severe illness from coronavirus
If you are not in any of the risk groups, you can help your family, friends or neighbours who are self-isolating by:
- Getting them essential supplies like food or medicines. (Remember to leave all items outside for collection and always keep a distance of 2m (6ft) away
- Not visiting them to socialise
Staying in touch regularly through phone calls and digital communication
How can I help as a volunteer?
If you’re not in any of the risk groups, you can volunteer to help your local community during the coronavirus pandemic. You can help with essential tasks like:
- delivering food shopping
- getting prescription medicine
- helping local community support services like food banks and homeless services
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.Meet our doctors
Last reviewed: 16 Apr 2020
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Coronavirus: how to help safely (2020) Cabinet Office [accessed 12 April 2020]
Guidance for employers and businesses on coronavirus (2020) gov.uk [accessed 16 April 2020]