Public perceptions and experiences of social distancing and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A UK-based focus group study.

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OBJECTIVE: This study explored UK public perceptions and experiences of social distancing and social isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DESIGN: This qualitative study comprised five focus groups, carried out online during the early stages of the UK’s stay at home order (‘lockdown’), and analysed using a thematic approach.
SETTING: Focus groups took place via online video-conferencing
PARTICIPANTS: Participants (n=27) were all UK residents aged 18 years and older, representing a range of gender, ethnic, age and occupational backgrounds.
RESULTS: Qualitative analysis revealed four main themes: (1) Loss – participants’ loss of (in-person) social interaction, loss of income and loss of structure and routine led to psychological and emotional ‘losses’ such as loss of motivation, loss of meaning, and loss of self-worth; (2) Criticisms of government communication – participants reported a lack of trust in government and a lack of clarity in the guidelines around social distancing and isolation; (3) Adherence – participants reported high self-adherence to social distancing guidelines but reported seeing or hearing of non-adherence in others; (4) Uncertainty around social-reintegration and the future - some participants felt they would have lingering concerns over social contact while others were eager to return to high levels of social activity.
Most participants, and particularly those in low-paid or precarious employment, reported feeling that the social distancing and isolation associated with COVID-19 policy has had negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing during the early stages of the UK’s ‘lockdown’.
CONCLUSIONS: A rapid response is necessary in terms of public health programming to mitigate the mental health impacts of COVID-19 social distancing and isolation. Social distancing and isolation ‘exit strategies’ must account for the fact that, although some individuals will voluntarily or habitually continue to socially distance, others will seek high levels of social engagement as soon as possible.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalBMJ Open
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 7 Jul 2020