Lockdown could be eased with ‘social bubbles’ - but what are they?
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People could soon be allowed to meet outside in groups of 10 as the government contemplates the next stage of its coronavirus response.
The introduction of ‘social bubbles’, allowing Brits to expand their household group to include other households, is being considered ahead of the lockdown review expected on Thursday (May 28).
It could pave the way for families and friends to host small gatherings - including garden parties and barbecues - as soon as next month, with a maximum of 10 people in attendance.
Boris Johnson’s administration mentioned the possibility of introducing bubbles in its COVID-19 recovery strategy, published on May 11 when a ‘plan to rebuild’ was revealed to the nation.
And, with members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) highlighting the reduced risk of catching the virus outdoors, the idea was reportedly discussed at a cabinet meeting on Monday (May 25).
But what exactly are social bubbles and how would they work in practice?
With official plans not yet revealed by the government, the way in which bubbles would work in the UK is currently unclear.
A useful point of reference, however, is New Zealand, where a social bubble scheme has been in force since its own lockdown was first introduced on March 25.
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Initially - and similarly to the UK - people were told to restrict bubbles to their households, although those living alone were permitted to visit another person or couple within their local community.
Four weeks later bubbles were expanded to include close relatives and friends living nearby.
Updated guidance issued by New Zealand’s government said: “People must stay within their household bubble but can expand this to reconnect with close family, or bring in caregivers, or support isolated people.
“It’s important to protect your bubble if you extend it. Keep your bubble exclusive and only include people where it will keep you and them safe and well.
“If anyone within your bubble feels unwell, they should self-isolate from everyone else within your bubble.”
New Zealand’s attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 is widely perceived as a success story, with just 21 deaths at the time of writing compared to the UK’s 37,000.
But while use of social bubbles has drawn praise, the country’s remote location and strict travel policy are also seen as key contributing factors.
In Great Britain and Northern Ireland, meeting with a single person from outside one’s household was sanctioned earlier this month, as long as they are outdoors and maintain social distancing.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the UEA, believes the introduction of bubbles - or at least increased integration between households - is the natural progression towards a return to normality.
“It is a logical next step and it seems to have worked really well in New Zealand,” said Prof Hunter. “They are the poster boys - or girls - for in terms of how well they have managed this epidemic.
“You don’t have to stop all transmission of the virus, but you have to stop it to a point where the R value is less than one - then it will go away of its own accord.
“There are problems I can foresee, for example young couples with children having to choose which set of grandparents they have in their bubble. That could have a real long-term emotional impact.
“My simple solution is to say you can have your bubble, but then change it as long as there is a week in between. I would not lose any sleep over 10 people being in a bubble, but I would over any more than that.”
Whether or not the UK government opts to introduce bubbles of family and friends remains to be seen, but their existence in schools looks like a foregone conclusion.
The prime minister has confirmed primary schools will reopen from June 1 to early years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils, but with no more than 15 per class to ensure safety.
But bubbles of 15 have been deemed too large by St William’s Primary School in Norwich, which has around 450 pupils.
St William’s will instead permit class sizes of nine children in Year 6 and six for younger years, while each group - labelled a ‘hub’ - will have access to outdoor spaces according to a rota.
Sarah Shirras, the school’s headteacher, said: “From everything we have looked at - the ages of our children and size of our classrooms - 15 is not a feasible number.
“Children will not be mixing with other classes and other year groups. The only crossover will be some of the teachers mixing with more than one group, but it’s important at that age to be in contact with an adult they know and trust.
“The issue with the bubble concept in schools is that children are also in bubbles at home, and then their parents might be in bubbles at work.
“We have got to be realistic that these bubbles will not be solid units, but when children are in school we will absolutely limit contact to their particular groups.”
So, what do people across Norfolk and Waveney think about the possibility of increased interaction with loved ones being permitted?
We asked EDP readers via our social media channels how they feel about social bubbles, and whether or not they would work.
Linda Doherty said her distance from family members posed a problem, commenting: “It would allow families to meet and children to play with friends which would be good.
“But as a grandparent, with all of my family a minimum of 2 hours drive away and not in the same direction, it would not easily work for me.”
Meanwhile, Natasha Adcock, from Dereham, said the introduction of social bubbles could prove effective, adding: “It will work if people listen and follow the instructions.”
But Ben Batley doubted public willingness to adhere to the exclusivity of their bubbles and questioned the police’s ability to crack down on rule-breakers.
“10 people will be 20 or 30 on one day and a different group the next day,” he said. “It will be impossible to police and may as well be no limits at all.”
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