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Physical distance doesn’t mean social distance

“Physical distance doesn’t mean social distance.” - Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organisations briefing 25/03/2020.
the courtney foundation

‘Social distancing’ is the new phrase that a lot of us have become used to saying, but with all of the non-physical ways that we can be close and connect, what the term really refers to is only physical distance.

Social interaction is really important for our wellbeing, it can give us comfort, encouragement, reassurance, intellectual stimulation or promote a sense of worth and value. It might be particularly important in times of hardship, and in our present ‘lockdown’ state and in some cases difficulty accessing food and supplies, being able to come together and support each other is vital. This needs social closeness.

With the UK population of over 60 million facing necessary restrictions of movement, instructed by the government to only go out when necessary – for work (if you must and cannot work from home), for food and supplies or once a day for exercise – many people are in literal isolation in order to protect themselves, their families and the wider public. Those considered medically vulnerable have been strongly advised to not leave their homes for 12 weeks and have others bring food, medicine and supplies to them, while still avoiding any physical interaction. 

These measures have never been seen in our lifetimes. They have forced a change in our social norms, likely with lasting effects. This isn’t just about handshaking, we are talking about families and friends seeing each other perhaps only through a screen for several months. Today, me and my sister waved to each other as I stood on my balcony and she called me from the car. On Mother’s Day a family friend, my ‘second mum’ who is 70 spoke to her son and grandson though the kitchen window because they didn’t want to risk infection. No hugs, no eating together, no sitting with each other without the need for words.

These situations will not be rare and they are far from the much more difficult stories we are seeing of families unable to be with each other in their dying moments, or being unable to attend funerals.  

In the conversations I’ve had with friends over the past few weeks there’s one thing we keep repeating – it’s all really surreal. Maybe that’s a good thing, that this new norm is not something that we get used to. Regardless, it will be our new norm for a while.

So how can we accept this new way of life – however temporary it might be – and still fulfil our social needs? For some this might mean engaging with strangers on Twitter every night, trying to cope through humour and a collective recognition of difficulty.

But I think that social closeness is something deeper than can be achieved on social media alone. It’s something that requires personal connections with friends, family and neighbours and we need to find ways to adapt how we maintain and build these connections. Here are some things to consider.

Check in

Of course we should check in regularly with people we know, especially those who are vulnerable or are sick and isolating. We may be fortunate enough to have family and friends around us who we check in with everyday – we can try to extend that support to a neighbour, colleague or associate who might be by themselves.

Still ‘see’ each other

Video calls are great, especially if you’re staying home and only seeing the same few faces around the house! If you are able to share an old phone or even WiFi with a neighbour to help them stay connected with their family, why not?


Try to stay in contact with your neighbours, if and when someone is going out to shop, maybe you can help each other out and get a few essentials at the same time. We can make sure we’re not contributing to the lack of access to food and other supplies by not buying too much.

Maintain meaning

If we can, use the time at home to be productive, so that we can contribute even more to society when things start to resemble normality. We’ll be posting links to education platforms for children and adults on our social media, many of which have made their courses free.

Take the wins

Embrace the good news. With unavoidable news stories of death tolls and the struggles of NHS and care workers, it’s hard to miss the positive stories of community action and collective efforts that are also happening. We’ll be posting more of these on our social media too, along with local groups to join and engage with.


Make a difference. By staying at home we know that we are helping reduce infections and that is making a difference already. If you’re healthy and able to help out in other ways, see the national call for volunteers and this information about supporting our local hospital.

In some ways isolation, physical distancing and the restrictions on our daily life are inevitably making way for social closeness, by creating even more opportunities to connect and support each other. Let’s not forget now or in 12 months time that these opportunities and needs were always and will still be there.


Get coronavirus support as an extremely vulnerable person (UK Government website)

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