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Why is social distancing important to stop the spread of coronavirus?

The government has recently put more stringent measures in place when it comes to social distancing and isolation.

Social distancing aims to reduce the amount of contact between people in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus so that healthcare systems don’t become overwhelmed. Take a look at our post on ‘What is social distancing?’ for more on what it involves day to day.

But staying away from friends and family is really tough, particularly when we don’t yet have a clear idea of how long these measures might be in place for.

When we’re being asked to make such big changes and compromises to our lives, it can seem hard to follow them. It can be tempting to cut corners here and there, to go out when we’re feeling under the weather or someone in our household has symptoms.

But following these measures isn’t about each of us as individuals, it’s about keeping us all safe as part of a wider community.

There are several ways that social distancing and self-isolating when you have symptoms keeps everyone safe.

Protecting the vulnerable

The first is that although we may feel confident our bodies can cope with the virus, we may come into contact with others who are less able to fight it.

This may be people with underlying health conditions that they may or may not be aware of, those over the age of 70 and those with existing respiratory issues, such as asthma.

There is also believed to be an increased risk to pregnant women. Not enough is known about this new virus to be sure about this risk, but with other similar viruses pregnant women have an increased risk of serious illness.

Even if you’re taking care to limit the number of people you see, you can’t know who they may come into contact with who could be in one of those high risk groups. Social distancing minimises that risk of exposure for the most vulnerable.

Flattening the curve

The phrase ‘flatten the curve’ has been talked about a lot over the past few months, but what does it mean?

Flattening the curve is about making sure we have medical resources we have are enough to tackle the pandemic.

In order for the system not to become overwhelmed, there is a limited number of people that the NHS can care for, especially when it comes to critical care.

Although most people will be able to care for themselves at home when they have coronavirus, it’s estimated that around 5% of the UK population will need hospital care - that’s more than 3.3 million people. This may include being on a ventilator to breathe for them.

Protecting the NHS

The UK has 6.6 critical care beds per 100,000 people. This puts us significantly behind others in Europe such as Germany and France at 23rd place.

Whilst this is usually enough, the rapid increase in the number of people needing care in a short period of time puts huge pressure on this system.

Some people think that getting it sooner rather than later seems like a good idea, but this approach would put a lot of pressure on an already stretched healthcare system.

If everyone were to get infected in a short period of time, the NHS would not be able to cope and, like Italy, doctors would face difficult decisions about prioritising which patients to treat.

Flattening the curve isn’t primarily about reducing the overall number of people who get the virus, it’s about controlling when people get the virus and limiting the number of people who get it at any one time in order to reduce the burden on the NHS.

By flattening the curve, we can make sure that there are critical care resources available for everyone who needs them. By getting the best care at the time they need it most, this will reduce the number of deaths.

We can all play our part in flattening the curve by continuing to listen to the latest government guidelines, practising social distancing and self-isolating when we’re ill.

Check the latest government guidelines on treatment and isolation on their dedicated COVID-19 page.

Find out more about what self-isolation should look like as well as ideas for keeping busy in our Understanding Isolation guide.

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