Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Original research
Public perceptions and experiences of social distancing and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic: a UK-based focus group study
  1. Simon N Williams1,
  2. Christopher J Armitage2,
  3. Tova Tampe3,
  4. Kimberly Dienes2
  1. 1 Centre for People and Organisation, School of Management, Swansea University, Swansea, UK
  2. 2 Manchester Centre for Health Psychology, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  3. 3 World Health Organization, Genève, Switzerland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Simon N Williams; s.n.williams{at}


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 videoconferencing.

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 well-being 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.

  • public health
  • mental health
  • qualitative research

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See: .

Statistics from


  • Contributors All authors (SNW, CA, TT, KD) contributed to the planning of the study. The analysis was conducted by SNW and KD. The initial draft of the article was written by SNW. All authors (SNW, CA, TT, KD) revised the manuscript and approved the final version for publication. SNW is the guarantor of the article.

  • Funding This research was supported by the Manchester Centre for Health Psychology based at the University of Manchester (£2000) and a ‘Greatest Need Fund’ award (£3000) from Swansea University. CA’s contribution was additionally supported by the NIHR Manchester Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre.

  • Disclaimer The funders played no role in the conduct of the study.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval Ethical approval was received by Swansea University’s School of Management Research Ethics Committee (SOM-REC-STAFF-091).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available upon reasonable request. Ethical restrictions related to participant confidentiality prohibit the authors from making the data set publicly available. During the consent process, participants were explicitly guaranteed that the data would only be seen my members of the study team. For any discussions about the data set please contact the corresponding author: SNW (

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.