Tightened restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 have been announced this evening, with the concept of "social bubbles" forming part of the Government's new plan.

Under the modified Level 5 measures, people are not allowed to visit other households, and may only meet with one other household outdoors, away from the home, within a 5km limit.

However, announcing the plan Taoiseach Mícheál Martin said that people who are living alone, or parenting alone, may pair with one other household in a "support bubble".

Mr Martin said the 5km travel restrictions will not apply to the support bubbles.

He said the idea was that people would link with one other household, and asked people to engage with this in good faith.

There are also exemptions to the visiting restrictions for compassionate grounds and childcare. 

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What is a bubble? 

A bubble is an exclusive social network in which members can have physical contact with each other but not with anyone else. 

Other countries have introduced the measure to allow people from multiple households to meet and interact with each other indoors as if they lived in the same home.

The extended household approach works on the basis of exclusivity and has allowed people to facilitate childcare needs, as well as alleviate social isolation for those living alone. 

As the multiple households are considered to be a single household, if anyone in a bubble displays Covid-19 symptoms then the entire bubble must self-isolate or quarantine to prevent further spread. 

The concept of bubbles has already been used to a certain extent in schools where each classroom is described as a bubble, and children are subdivided into pods. 

Who can form a support bubble in Ireland?

Under Level 5, people who have certain living situations can form a bubble with one other household of any size.

You can form a support bubble if: live alone with children under the age of 18, you live alone, you share parenting or custody arrangements, you live with an adult you provide care for, or you live by yourself and have a carer or carers who support you.

Support bubbles can only be formed with one other household that is not already part of a support bubble.

It is advised that people should choose another household in their locality, but it can be outside the five kilometre restriction under Level 5.

What happens if someone in a support bubble develops symptoms? 

As normal, if someone develops symptoms of Covid-19 they must self-isolate and phone a GP for advice.

Other members of the bubble must restrict their movements immediately if they met the symptomatic person within the period of two days before the symptoms started and up to 10 days after the symptoms started. 

If this person tests positive, they must continue to self isolate for ten days since symptoms began and all members of the bubble should restrict their movements for 14 days from their last contact with the case.

No visits between households in a bubble should take place if anyone is symptomatic, or has been a close contact of a confirmed case.

The New Zealand approach 

New Zealand introduced the term bubbles as part of its initial Level 4 lockdown in March, whereby people were instructed to stay within their individual household bubbles. 

People living alone or with complex childcare needs, who could expand their bubble to encompass a "buddy". 

Those who had to go to work were also allocated 'work bubbles’ involving a small number of colleagues. 

As the spread of the virus fell, bubbles were allowed to expand to include multiple households and incorporate isolated people, caregivers, friends, and family.

The advice was to expand to other people "where it will keep you and them safe and well". 

The UK approach 

The approach to bubbles has varied across the different jurisdictions in the UK.

In general, advice from the UK emphasises that limiting all social interaction is preferable for reducing the spread of the virus, albeit difficult.

However, it has allowed people to expand their close contacts with other households. 

When a bubble or extended household is formed, all members of the bubble are treated as one household. 

This means that if anyone from the bubble develops symptoms or tests positive, everyone else in the bubble must follow stay-at-home guidance. 

People are encouraged not to travel outside of their local area for their bubbles. 

In Northern Ireland, a bubble can be formed between two households of any size, but neither house can be part of an additional bubble.

Meetings are still limited to a maximum of 10 people at any one time. 

Bubbles can be changed if there fourteen days have passed since the last visit between households.

In England, "support bubbles" allow a single-adult household to interact with one other household of any size. 

These bubbles must be exclusive and can not be changed.

The two homes are now considered as a single household and

A similar system applies in Scotland where adults who live alone or only live with children under the age of 18 can form an "extended household" with a household of any size. 

A household must not form an extended household with more than one other household.

The agreement can end, but no new extended households should be formed. 

In Wales, people are allowed to create an "extended household" with up to three other households. 

While four households of any size can be used to form this bubble, indoor gatherings must still be limited to six people at a time (not including children aged under 11) 

No person can be part of more than one extended household, with the exception of children who live in two homes. 

Bubble benefits

A review of New Zealand’s approach by the London School of Economics found bubbles helped isolated people, vulnerable people, and those with childcare burdens to get the support they needed in a way that is likely to minimise the spread of the virus.

It said other governments should frame bubble expansion as an act of care or support rather than a return to normal or a social pleasure. 

The LSE report said the policy should not be framed as ‘easing’ or ‘relaxing’ measures as this can lead to heightened anxiety about the approach and give the impression people are reckless for taking advantage of it. 

The authors also supported the use of the term "bubble" over "extended household" because it evokes the principle of containment while remaining non-threatening, flexible, and fragile.