In Depth

Coronavirus glossary: from shielding, self-isolating and social distancing to covidiots

A guide to the most talked-about terms and their meanings

People in the UK are adjusting to life under new government advice limiting how we interact with friends, how often we can leave the house, and even how we should conduct romantic relationships.

Along with the new restrictions, there is lots of new or previously uncommon terminology to get our heads around. Here, The Week explains what it all means:


This refers to a person who has the virus but is not showing any of the symptoms usually associated with it, such as a high fever or dry cough.

“Coronavirus is actually quite a significant spectrum of symptoms, from people who are entirely asymptomatic and would have no idea that they have it to people with very mild, cold-like symptoms – runny nose, congestion, sore throat – to people with more flu-like symptoms – high fevers, muscle aches, shortness of breath and cough,” says Dr William Hillmann in The Guardian.

Community transmission

This refers to the virus passing uncontrolled through a domestic community, person to person. It refers to unknown transmission between an existing community, so excludes cases where an identified case has given the virus to someone else. It also excludes instances where someone from overseas gives a member of the domestic population the virus. 


Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that include the new coronavirus, technically named Sars-CoV-2. This is short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 – so named because it is related, though different from, the 2003 Sars virus. Other coronaviruses cause Sars, Mers and the common cold.


This is the disease caused by the new coronavirus that is making people ill around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) took weeks to find a name that wouldn’t prejudice against any country, animal or population.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus when announcing the name.


People who ignore rules on social distancing and other measures aimed at protecting people from contracting or spreading coronavirus have acquired their own slur – #covidiots has been trending on Twitter with plenty of examples.


An epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area”, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It differs from a pandemic - which is an “epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people”, says CDC.

So a pandemic is a type of epidemic, but not vice versa.

Flattening the curve

This refers to the slowing of a virus’s spread, aimed at making the number of cases coming at peak time lower. Though the same number of people may eventually be infected, the infections will be spread out over time, and health services will be better able to cope.


People who have a weakened or impaired immune system because of an existing health condition, medication or malnutrition.

Many of those who are immunocompromised may have an underlying condition, such as asthma, diabetes, HIV, chronic lung disease or cancer.

Incubation period

This is the period of time it takes for symptoms to appear in someone who has caught the virus. WHO estimates that the incubation period for Covid-19 ranges from one to 14 days, and is most commonly around five days.

Key worker

In the UK, “key worker” is being used as shorthand by government for someone who has been designated a specific, special status during the coronavirus outbreak.

Children of key workers can continue to attend school so that their parents can continue with work considered to be essential in keeping the country functioning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more about key workers here.


PPE stands for personal protective equipment.

During this coronavirus outbreak, it is generally being used to refer to the equipment used by health workers and others on the frontline against the virus, such as masks, hazmat suits or eye protection.


This refers to the process of remaining in your home, isolated from other people, in order to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Where possible, this should be practised separate from those in your home, or with as limited contact as possible.

“The idea is that if you have the virus and are showing symptoms you can easily spread it through the water droplets from your breath, so if you are separated from others you won’t spread it,” says Radio New Zealand.

Isolation and quarantine are essentially synonymous.


Shielding is the practice of keeping vulnerable people away from anyone who might infect them with coronavirus

In the UK, “this applies to 1.5m vulnerable or elderly people with other health conditions. They should not go outside for 12 weeks, even to buy food. The army is supplying them with essentials,” reports The Independent.

Social distancing

Social distancing refers to voluntary and mandatory measures aimed at keeping people physically apart from others to stop the spread of the virus.

Social distancing essentially means physical distancing  keeping at least two metres between yourself and other people under UK guidance.


Covid-19: everything you need to know about coronavirus

Covid-19: everything you need to know about coronavirus

Will coronavirus change Boris Johnson’s leadership style?
Boris Johnson
In Depth

Will coronavirus change Boris Johnson’s leadership style?

Indian Wells tennis cancelled - is Wimbledon in danger?
Novak Djokovic kisses the winner’s trophy after beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final
In Brief

Indian Wells tennis cancelled - is Wimbledon in danger?

‘Scotland’s political culture is in a dire state’
Nicola Sturgeon inquiry
Instant Opinion

‘Scotland’s political culture is in a dire state’

Popular articles

Best TV crime dramas to watch in 2021
Line of Duty series six returns to BBC One in 2021
In Depth

Best TV crime dramas to watch in 2021

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021

Are Harry and Meghan pushing it with their request for press privacy?
Harry and Meghan
The latest on . . .

Are Harry and Meghan pushing it with their request for press privacy?