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What is lockdown and what does it mean for you?

Discover what exactly lockdown means, where it's been enacted, how it affects you – and whether it works.

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This blog was published on 3 April 2020. For the latest on how to respond to the coronavirus, please consult the World Health Organization and take guidance from your national government’s latest advice.

On Monday 23 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Britain would be put into a state of lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Placing it in line with other countries around the world, there would now be, he explained, limits to public gatherings, and people are being advised to stay inside as much as possible. 

What does lockdown mean for the UK?

  • You can’t visit friends in their home.
  • You can’t meet family members who don’t live with you.
  • You can leave home if you’re a worker performing essential work.
  • You can exercise once a day.
  • You can walk your dog once a day as part of your daily exercise.
  • You can go to donate blood.
  • You can shop for essentials (eg. food and medicine).
  • You can leave home for medical purposes (eg. a trip to the doctor or hospital).
  • Children under 18 with separated parents can visit both homes.
  • Emergency callouts (eg. a plumber fixing a boiler) can happen, but social distancing rules need to be observed (people standing 2 metres apart).
  • Weddings, baptisms, and sporting events are banned.

The exact regulations and advice may differ depending on what part of the UK you are in. Check your national and regional government services for the latest updates.

Is lockdown different from quarantine?

Lockdown is an amorphous term, which includes quarantine measures in its definition. According to the CDC, quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who are not ill but may have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become ill.

Lockdown is a term that refers to measures being placed on the whole of society to restrict movement and services to their essentials, of which mass quarantining is a part.

For more information on what quarantine means, check out our quarantine explainer.

Why are we in lockdown?

The thinking behind lockdown is to ‘flatten the curve’ of the pace of advance of the virus. 

COVID-19 is a relatively contagious disease: seemingly twice as contagious as the flu, and less contagious than MERS.

Because a relatively high proportion of people who get it require hospital treatment – some estimates being as high as 20% – coronavirus threatens to overwhelm national health systems in a very short period of time if cases are left unchecked and allowed to spread.

However, by limiting the movement of the public, the movement of the disease can be similarly restricted, meaning that not everyone gets it at once – and hospitals don’t become overloaded with patients.

This might mean us all staying inside for longer, but the payoff is trying to prevent doctors from having to triage patients in large numbers – as happened in Italy

If you want to know more, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s course on COVID-19 covers how coronavirus spreads, how we can ‘flatten the curve’, and more.

Is lockdown effective?

Coronavirus first originated in Asia, and countries there were equally the first to use lockdown as a strategy to stop the virus from spreading and to protect the integrity of their healthcare systems.

We can see that the data shows clearly that lockdown does work as a method of preventing viral spread.

China was the first country to enforce lockdown, in the Hubei region where COVID-19 was discovered. The country has reported a levelling off of infections since lockdown was introduced, and Hubei recently announced it had seen no new cases in five consecutive days

Three months since lockdown began, public transport is now running again in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital.


Similarly, South Korea has also seen its curve flatten:

However, South Korea was able to do this without the widespread measures on movement seen in China and elsewhere. Instead, they focussed on extensive testing, using GPS to monitor and track anyone found to carry the virus so that they (and anyone they came into contact with) could be quarantined.

This is an important reminder that lockdown is only one aspect of containment and that testing (as the World Health Organisation have stressed) is vital too.

Which countries are in lockdown and when did they start?*

Countries have been going into lockdown at various points in the pandemic:

  • China: Began lockdown 23 January with the death toll at 17
  • Italy: Began lockdown 9 March with the death toll at 463
  • Spain: Began lockdown 15 March with the death toll at 288
  • France: Began lockdown 16 March with the death toll at 148
  • UK: Began lockdown 24 March with the death toll at 355
  • New Zealand: Began lockdown 25 March with the death toll at 0
  • India: Began lockdown 25 March with the death toll at 10
  • South Africa: Began lockdown 26 March with the death toll at 0.

Many European countries are severely restricting movement, including Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria. Sweden has so far resisted instituting lockdown measures.

There have also been lockdowns announced by states or cities that have been particularly badly affected – Saudi Arabia has placed Riyadh in lockdown, for example.

In the United States the following states have banned large public gatherings and ordered citizens to stay at home:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Washington state
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin.

*Correct as of 3 April

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