The difference between social distancing and physical distancing

During the current COVID-19 crisis, much has been made of the need to stay away from people who are sick. The term commonly used in public health to describe this is “social distancing”. However, to stay healthy, this is about physical separation, not social segregation and it’s an important distinction.

Young woman wearing a face mask

Social distancing vs. Physical distancing

Current health guidance is remaining at least two metres from someone who is sick. Sneeze into a tissue, cough into your elbow and wash your hands as often as possible for 20 seconds with soap. This is about physical separation and physical health. All sensible.

However, some of the most vulnerable people in our society are already socially distanced. They may be elderly, disabled, or live alone. They may be mobility restricted, socially isolated – or simply can’t drive to the shops. Advocating “social distancing” could isolate already socially isolated people even further.

We know that the best way to build inclusion (and reap its many benefits) is through social contact. People who know people that are different from them are less likely to be fearful and therefore, less subject to stereotype and bias. However, when “inter-group contact” is not possible, we need to double up on tech solutions to progress – and to avoid getting worse.

One way tech is being leveraged is that people are forming social media groups on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook to support each other and share ideas for working from home more easily and effectively. Musicians are holding virtual concerts, where their fans can interact over chat like they would in an actual concert venue. People are holding virtual trivia contests to replace the fun of the pub quiz, where teammates can be on a video chat with each other, and answers can be sent directly to the quizmaster.

While these may seem like somewhat trivial events, they actually have a tremendous impact on people’s ability to interact with others outside of their immediate in-group because of the cross-cutting nature of these interests (music, trivia, and working from home). Without tech contact and other forms of non-physical contact, fear could increase.

At a time of crisis and fear, we need the opposite of social distancing. We need a sense that we are in this together, that people are not facing this alone. We need social inclusion, not distance. Call on your elderly neighbour, message your resident association or local community groups and offer help, and if you are able, consider what volunteering you can do for people who are most at risk.

Physical distancing is the right term. ‘Social distancing’ makes people distrusting and unhelpful. We need to physically separate, not socially separate.

Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included, a consultancy dedicated to helping people understand diversity and inclusion. Learn more at

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This is new for all of us, and in this time of uncertainty, it’s important we look after ourselves, and each other.

If you would like to speak to a professional about how you are feeling, and how to manage this uncertainty, online counselling is a highly effective option. We have more than 12,000 counsellors offering online therapy – via telephone, video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Skype, or online messaging. It’s easy to feel alone during this time of isolation, but remember that we’re all in this together. Help is available.

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Written by Stephen Frost
Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included, a consultancy dedicated to helping people understand diversity and inclusion. His latest book 'Building an Inclusive Organisation' is out now. For more information visit or follow Stephen on Twitter (@FrostIncluded).
Written by Stephen Frost
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