19 Mar 2020

Social distancing: A way to be everybody's friend

10:42 am on 19 March 2020

The information in this story has been overtaken by events as the government placed New Zealand on a nationwide lockdown at 11.59pm 25 March 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19.  Please go to RNZ's Covid-19 news page for the latest coverage, and you can find full government information here.

We've heard of self isolation, but what is "social distancing?"

Man working on notebook, with a fresh cup of tea or coffee. Home work concept.

Photo: 123RF

The Government has advised that public events or gatherings of 500 or more people outdoors, or 100 or more people indoors, will be cancelled. 

Everyone arriving in New Zealand must now self-isolate for 14 days.  

Experts are also encouraging people to practice voluntary "social distancing". 

RNZ spoke to Public Health epidemiologist Patricia Priest, about social distancing and why we should be doing it.

Who should be doing it?

It should really be called physical distancing, Priest says.

This means separating people physically, not emotionally. So staying at least a metre from people and at least two from anybody who has symptoms.

"In saying that it's not home detention, it's not saying that you have to lock yourself in a room, but it's saying, yes, stay away from crowded areas. Try and keep some distance from other people," Priest says.

Everybody should be distancing, to avoid getting infected by anybody else or infecting anybody else.

"So there's no one group that needs to be doing social distancing, I think people who are concerned that they're at higher risk of severe disease, might want to practice some more, sort of more extreme versions by being really careful about when and where they go out."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)

Can I still socialise?

Yes, you just need to be creative.

The key is to not crowd together in closed in spaces, outside areas are a good option.

"There's lots of ways that we can use the internet to be creative about socialising. But we need to be getting used to staying a metre away from other people."

Ways to distance in public areas

The rule of thumb is to stay a metre away from others, wherever possible.

When it comes to the supermarket Priest says, keep it simple.

"Try and go to the supermarket when it's likely not to be too busy. We might want to buy maybe a week's worth of groceries at a time, rather than a day's worth, if you're using a grocery cart to get your groceries when you leave a supermarket, make sure you clean your hands before as you're likely to be touching your face."

Restaurants are tricky, but it is still possible.

It all depends on how the tables are set up, one metre apart is the goal.

"Under those circumstances it would seem reasonable to still go but there aren't many restaurants I think who would currently be set up in that way. So I guess it's about checking with the restaurant, how far you'd be sitting in from other people."

Visits from family and friends

Firstly, anyone with symptoms should not be visiting, after that it is "a judgement call".

"I would suggest, maybe trying to meet with friends somewhere outside where it's easier to stay away from each other rather than perhaps meeting a whole lot of friends in a small lunch room where you're inevitably going to be close to each other."


Schools and kindergartens have not been shut, so playgrounds are "probably fine".

As long as they are not too crowded and you are cleaning their hands - a lot.

"I think that it's probably okay to take children to playgrounds, if you're cautious about the distance they're able to maintain from other kids and keeping their hands clean when they've been touching playground equipment."


On 21 March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an alert system for Covid-19 and said all people over 70 or who have compromised immunity should stay at home as much as possible. She also advised against any non-essential travel within New Zealand. 

Priest says we need to make sure the elderly are not unduly isolated. 

"We need to be making sure that we've thought about the old people in our lives or the people who are living alone in our lives and those who maybe are our neighbours, it may be through, you know, standing a metre away from them at the front door and having a chat taking a food parcel and leaving it at the door."

How long should we be distancing for?

For the foreseeable future, Priest says.

"We've seen dramatic effects in China of very, very extreme social distancing, so that they're now having very few new cases each day. What we're not sure about is how things will look when they start to ease off on their restrictions but we're really kind of needing to look at how things go globally before we have anything to go off."

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus: