Lockdown is expected to be eased in June across the UK. But strict rules will still continue.
The Scottish government has already announced a new strategy of “social bubbles” – allowing you to mix with more people. And it’s likely that similar policies will be introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
What is a bubble?
At the moment, lockdown rules vary slightly between the different countries that make up the UK.
But, on the whole, you are only allowed to have close contact with people in your own household.
In effect, this means we are already in “bubbles” – inside our own households. But this new policy will allow us to expand those bubbles, by pairing up with another household.
For instance, you might choose to couple-up with a friend or relative who lives nearby – meaning you can socialise with them.
But crucially, neither household is allowed to introduce anyone else into the bubble.
In Scotland, the new rules say you can only meet outside – in groups of no more than eight. And it’s likely that similar rules will apply in other parts of the UK as well.
At first – even when meeting outside – bubbles will be limited to just two households. But eventually the government might allow people to expend their bubbles even more. For instance, two bubbles might join together to make a group of four households.
It is not yet clear exactly how this strategy will be enforced, but the strategy has already been in place for some time in other countries – including New Zealand and the island of Guernsey, which is a British Crown Dependency.
How are bubbles being used in Guernsey?
FactCheck spoke to Guernsey’s Director of Public Health, Dr Nicola Brink, who said bubbles were only introduced after an “amazingly successful” track and trace strategy on the island.
She explained: “What people were missing in lockdown was social connectivity. So the challenge for us was how do we increase people’s connectivity without causing a resurgence of infections. So we started with this bubble concept.”
In Guernsey, social bubbles are not enforced by law, but Dr Brink said there has been “high degrees of community compliance”.
“The first thing was to have one other bubble – a double bubble,” she said. “But it has to be a reciprocal arrangement. You can’t have one household bubbling with another household who are trying to bubble with someone else.”
“It enabled the island to move into greater social interaction. It helped people psychologically; it helped with their general health and wellbeing. And I think here you have to balance not only the very narrow want to prevent transmission of the virus… you also have to consider the wider health and wellbeing.”
There is also an element of trust involved: you have to be confident that other people in your bubble are sticking to the rules and advice. Things like social distancing and hand washing are still extremely important – especially when people are outside their own household.
And Dr Brink said it’s advisable not to meet people in your bubble “even if you’re a little bit ill”. She said: “If you’re not sure if it’s hay-fever or something else, stay away.”
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that life in Guernsey is completely different to much of the UK, so it’s unlikely the bubble strategy will play out in exactly the same way. For one thing, commuters don’t need to contend with crowded trains and tubes, and the island’s small population means that society is far more homogeneous and interconnected.
In parts of the UK, it may be harder to keep bubbles tightly sealed. Dr Brink said: “An island jurisdiction is different – there’s no doubt about it… It’s a very agile way of working.”
She added: “At the moment it’s serving us well. But I wouldn’t presume to say that we’ve got something that would translate to somewhere else.”
How about vulnerable people?
This is one of the main ways in which the UK’s strategy may differ from Guernsey’s .
In Guernsey, the bubble strategy is based on personal choices – so it’s up to vulnerable people to decide for themselves if they want to take part.
Dr Brink said: “For some people, they might be 80, but seeing their grandchildren is so important to them. So what we’re saying is, if you’re in a risk group or you’re an older person, have a chat with your GP. We want to try and make it personalised and right for each individual.
“Some people have been quite happy that they’d like to bubble up; others have had concerns.” But she explained: “We don’t know how long this is going to go on – so to say to a grandmother ‘you can’t see your grandchild for six months,’ for some people that’s going to be very difficult.”
However, the Scottish government has already said that vulnerable people should not join bubbles.
It said people in the “shielded” group, who are at the highest risk from the virus, are being “asked to continue to observe the additional restrictions currently in place”.
It adds: “Special consideration will also be given to those who are not shielding but are at heightened risk, for instance people over 70, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions.”
For those who are allowed to form a bubble, it will be up to individuals to find a pairing that they feel comfortable with – or to stay isolated if they prefer. For instance, a household where people are working from home may not feel comfortable pairing up with a household that commutes to work on the underground.
It’s also worth remembering that the rules about social bubbles could vary between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.