Background: Physical distancing measures (e.g., keeping a distance of two metres from others, avoiding crowded areas, and reducing the number of close physical contacts) continue to be among the most important preventative measures used to reduce the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Therefore, it is important to understand barriers and facilitators of physical distancing to help inform future public health campaigns. Methods: The current study aimed to qualitatively explore barriers and facilitators of physical distancing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic using a qualitative interpretative design. Semi-structured one-to-one phone interviews were conducted with 25 participants aged 18+ years and living in the Republic of Ireland between September and October 2020. A purposive sampling strategy was used to maximise diversity in terms of age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Interviews were analysed using inductive thematic analysis. Results: Analysis resulted in the development of six main themes related to barriers and facilitators of physical distancing: (1) Maintaining and negotiating close relationships; (2) Public environments support or discourage physical distancing; (3) Habituation to threat; (4) Taking risks to protect well-being; (5) Personal responsibility to control the “controllables”; and (6) Confusion and uncertainty around government guidelines. Conclusions: Physical distancing measures were judged to be more or less difficult based on a number of internal and external psychosocial factors. Barriers to distancing included difficulties maintaining and negotiating close relationships, habituation to COVID-19-related threat, risk compensation, and confusion and uncertainty around government guidelines. Having a sense of personal responsibility to prevent COVID-19 transmission through distancing was an important facilitator. The structure of public environments was viewed as both barrier and facilitator. Barriers and facilitators may vary depending on context and life stage, which should be considered in the design of interventions to target physical distancing behaviour.


© 2021 Farrell K et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Farrell, K., Durand, H., McSharry, J., Meade, O., Kenny, E., Noone, C., O'Connor, L., Lavoie, K., Byrne, M., Mooney, R., McGuire, B. & Molloy, G. 2021, 'Exploring barriers and facilitators of physical distancing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: a qualitative interview study', HRB Open Research, 4, article no: 50. https://doi.org/10.12688/hrbopenres.13295.2

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Last updated: 14 October 2022
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