A third of UK adults – and half of those over 70 – are so concerned about contracting Covid that they still do most or all of the social distancing, according to government figures.
The phenomenon has been dubbed “long social distancing” — a reference to long Covid, where a person suffers from symptoms of the virus for three months or more.
About 55 per cent of people aged 70 and over in Britain, who are most vulnerable to the virus, keep their distance “always or usually” when leaving the house – meaning foregoing visits to cafes, restaurants , movie theaters, concerts and other crowded venues, according to the Bureau of National Statistics.
In general, men are slightly more likely to be social distancing than women – at 36 and 32 percent, across all adult age groups.
But while the elders of the population are the most socially distancing, the practice extends well beyond the 4 million Britons classified as “extremely clinically frail”.
Large numbers of people in younger age groups are also exercising a high degree of caution – even though the majority have largely returned to life as they were before the pandemic, the figures show.
About 16 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds still have “often or always” social distancing, compared with 31 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 37 percent of 50- to 69-year-olds, the ONS said.
In addition, 46 percent of adults said they had avoided physical contact with others — such as shaking hands, hugs, holding hands and passing objects — during the past week when they were outdoors, indicating a high degree of caution among many of those who are not strictly social. take distance.
That figure rises to 63 percent among the over-70s.
“I’m quite surprised by the sheer magnitude of long social distancing, especially among younger people,” said Simon Williams, who has researched the phenomenon.
“But we’ve been told for two years to treat people almost like a threat. So I think part of it has to do with habit, which for many is quite ingrained. Two years is a long time to practice a certain behavior. And beyond the physical risk, people are more anxious and conscientious,” he said.
“Meanwhile, others are saying, ‘I don’t want to be literally six feet apart, but maybe it’s a step too far to shake hands with someone I’ve met’,” added Dr Williams.
The ONS social distancing figures did not include homeworking, which were calculated separately.
It found that 15 percent of employees work entirely from home, while 22 percent work from a combination of home and work.
The ONS numbers add to the growing evidence that social distancing will be there for many in the near future.
A study by YouGov, meanwhile, found that nearly 30 percent of people in the UK still avoid crowded places.
Meanwhile, a US survey of social distancing published in March found that 13 percent of Americans said there would be “no return to pre-Covid activities” such as using elevators, public transportation and eating indoors at restaurants.
One of the researchers, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, said at the time that he was “astonished” at the size of the group and that the level of commitment to social distancing had remained consistent for nearly two years.
He suggested that some are “happy with their hermit lifestyle”, while others find socializing so stressful that they prefer isolation, or more generally fear getting sick – even if the coronavirus threat were to disappear.
That study also involved researchers from the University of Chicago and ITAM, a think tank in Mexico.
They used survey data to compare the attitudes of about 5,000 people per month over the past two years, sampled from a total of 75,000 respondents for broader research into work and living habits in light of Covid.
In the UK, Dr Williams believes there is a balancing act for the nation as a whole that allows as many people as possible to live their lives as normally as possible, while protecting the most vulnerable.
“Since the risk is now much lower, we certainly don’t want to spread the same messages as three to six months ago about avoiding contact. People have paid their dues in terms of social distancing and should be free to socialize safely.
“But in the same way, especially where people are clinically or emotionally vulnerable, we need to respect and tolerate that and remind ourselves that some measures are worth enforcing, such as hand washing.
“And if we see a resurgence of the virus, it might be helpful to remember that some of these things can be brought back to reduce or slow its spread. The question is, can we turn it on and off when we need to?” he said.
ONS’ current UK-wide figure of 34 per cent of Britons who most or all of the time social distancing compares to 42 per cent in early April, 29 per cent in March, about 63 per cent last July and a peak of 91 per cent in February 2021.