social distancing

‘Social Bubbles' Allow You to See Friends as Virus Lockdowns Ease — But They Might Not Work

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What to Know

  • A social bubble entails allowing people to see a small group of others outside their own household.
  • This has already been implemented in New Zealand and is said to have been considered in Belgium.

As more countries look to lift their coronavirus lockdowns, "social bubbles" have been floated as an idea of how to ease restrictions, but experts say they could be difficult to put into practice.  

A social bubble entails allowing people to form a group with a select number of people they are allowed to see socially outside their own household. 

They have been put forward as a way to continue containing the spread of COVID-19, which has infected more than 3.6 million people worldwide and killed over 257,000, according to the latest figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. 

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New Zealand — which has been heralded as an example for bringing its coronavirus cases down to zero — has already implemented social bubbles. It lifted certain lockdown restrictions last week and allowed people to expand their bubbles to contact with close family outside their own households. 

Meanwhile, Belgium is reportedly considering allowing people to socialize with a group of up to 10 people. It currently allows people to meet up with two others outside their household, so long they are outside and keep a distance from each other.

William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said social bubbles were "certainly a component of how, once the initial outbreak is under control, measures could be refined."

However, he added that the difficultly comes with the size of the group, as its scale could increase the probability of infection. 

"Imagine that a person has a 5% chance of getting infected in a given period," Hanage said. "If each person is counted as being at independent risk, that means that a cluster of 10 contacts has a 50% chance of experiencing a case in that period."

Mike Tildesley, an associate professor who specializes in infectious disease control at the University of Warwick, said that while “in principle, it’s a really sensible strategy,” practically it would be difficult to implement. 

He also said that narrowing down a list of friends — and ensuring that those friends also have the same list — sounded like a “social nightmare.” 

“You could envisage this situation where you name a group of friends, they name a group of friends that includes you, but it has some people that aren’t included on your list and all you’ve got is some sort of porous process that (the coronavirus) filters through the population more slowly that it did before,” Tildesley added. 

'Contact clustering'

The importance of exclusivity within these bubbles was outlined by Stefan Flasche, associate professor for the department of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in a recent blog post.

He was discussing how hard lockdown had been on his 4-year-old daughter, explaining that she was still at age where it was difficult to communicate digitally and that "her social life is very much centered around close physical contact with her best friends."

Being able to extend her contact to even one or two close friends would therefore "tremendously help her mental health and social development," and he suggested they could form a sort of exclusive playgroup.

This "social contact clustering for children would allow them to mingle with their friends while only adding a rather marginal risk for coronavirus infection from, or transmission to, those outside of the play group and their respective households," Flasche said.  

More broadly, he said this clustering strategy could be applied to households without children but who were "similarly struggling from a lack of direct social contacts as the lockdown restrictions begin to relax," such as single person households.

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