Deconfinement: alone or together, in the same bubble

(BRUXELLES) Around the world, this is a time of progressive deconfinement. The stores will reopen. Schools too. Why not allow individuals to widen the circle of their associates a little? Certain countries juggle delicately with the concept of “social bubble”, explains our collaborator in Belgium.

Jean-Christophe Laurence Jean-Christophe Laurence

La Presse

The operation is delicate and the procedure uncertain: how, after weeks of confinement, resume a semblance of normal social life without risking a second epidemic wave?

Between the partial reopening of shops and schools, some countries are also assessing the strategy of the enlarged “social bubble”. In other words, we could now associate with small groups of duly identified people, and no longer restrict ourselves to their immediate cell.

Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that she was thinking of extending the concept of “household” to allow “small gatherings” limited to ten people.

New Zealand, for its part, has adopted an expansion policy, which will make it possible to include, in its “contact bubble”, members of its extended family, carers or people alone, provided they live in the same city.

Finally, the Italian government has announced that it will soon be possible to visit “relatives”, while respecting distances and wearing masks, which is also causing countless debates on the very notion of “close”.

No one will deny the importance of a resumption of social life, even on a small scale. The strategy of the “enlarged social bubble” helps break the isolation and regain an appearance of normalcy. We could thus visit the grandparents, or even organize BBQs in his backyard with his brother-in-law or handpicked friends.

Top 10

But beware: for the risks of infection to be as limited as possible and for the bubble to be effective, the groups must be limited to few people – we are talking about a dozen – and always the same.

In order to keep the potential for infection in a closed circuit, each member of the group must also include, in his top 10 , the nine other persons of this group. Once the group is closed, it would be illegal to meet anyone outside this circle, which is probably easier said than done.

It’s an interesting compromise. We enlarged the silo, without seeing everyone.

Catherine Linard, health geographer at the University of Namur, Belgium

Interesting yes, but with questions.

How, for example, to enforce the integrity of the bubbles? For Catherine Linard, these informal networks are simply “impossible” to control. No choice, she said, to base this approach on “trust” and “understanding of the people”, which would likely involve impeccable communication from the authorities.

For others, this strategy poses nightmarish social questions. Who to include in his bubble? And what if the people you choose for your top top 10 do not include you in theirs?

This gives serious headaches to Ross McKenzie, a nurse in Edinburgh, Scotland, and father of two children. “For the regions, it's simpler. The cells will naturally expand to grandparents, close friends and siblings. But in a more cosmopolitan city, where there’s less that kind of connection, it’s different. Personally, I have no idea who I would put in my top 10 . And to be honest, I would also be worried that nobody would choose us! “


These caveats may explain why Belgium has ruled out this option after having seriously considered it. The country will only begin its gradual deconfinement on May 3, with the simple reopening of “non-essential” stores, as is already the case in Austria and Germany.

This choice, however, risks sowing confusion, believes virologist Anne Op de Beeck of the Free University of Brussels. Because once the stores are reopened, “it will be difficult to make people understand that they can go shopping, but not go see their grandparents …”

Reserve entirely shared by Catherine Linard, who, for her part, indicates a certain vagueness in the Belgian deconfinement strategy.

“It might have been better to put a clear threshold [dans le nombre de contacts permis] and we would have stuck with that, concludes the specialist. While now, there may be people who will think: we have the right to shop, so that means that I can see my loved ones. They're not really going to set limits … ”