Researchers have revealed that social bubbles or small groups of close contacts made up of friends and family may be the best way to keep COVID-19 contained when a lockdown is lifted.
According to the study from the University of Oxford in the UK, lifting the lockdown in favour of strategic distancing, could lead to improved compliance with official recommendations and ‘keep the curve’ flat, in terms of COVID-19 infections.
For the findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the research team modelled three scenarios to discover the best measures governments could use in order to keep the infection rate flat.
“We demonstrate that the strategic reduction of contact can strongly increase the efficiency of social distancing measures, introducing the possibility of allowing some social contact while keeping risks low,” said study lead author Dr Per Block from Oxford University.
“We demonstrate how simple changes within individuals’ social networks, and network-informed constellations within businesses and schools, can alter the rate and spread of the virus,” Block added.
The research team looked at three different scenarios for how people could interact more with others in a post-lockdown world while still keeping the spread of Covid-19 low.
This included keeping contact within the neighbourhood, people you see regularly and creating social bubbles with certain groups of people.
Each strategy offers the prospect of increased social contact, in a clearly defined way.
“All three of our strategies substantially slow the spread of the virus compared to either no intervention or simple, un-strategic social distancing,” the authors wrote.
According to the researchers, the third strategy, creating social bubbles, was the most effective strategy.
Maintaining similarity across contacts, such as only interacting with people who live within the same neighbourhood, and decreasing ties as occasional acquaintances were found to be highly effective when compared to reducing contact at random.
Based on the findings, the authors suggest that reducing high-impact contact, rather than reducing or removing it overall, can mitigate adverse social, behavioural and economic impacts of lockdown approaches while keeping risks low.
By offering different social distancing strategies, the study also proposes alternatives to social bubbles in cases when forming these is not practicable.
The authors suggest that all discussed approaches mitigate the recognised psychological and physical harms of prolonged social distancing.