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What is the COVID 'bubble' concept and can it work in Australia?

The COVID-19 'germ bubble' concept refers to close contacts with whom we do not practice wearing masks or maintain physical distancing. In the case of a strict lockdown, this usually only applies to your family members. But many countries, such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have experimented with bubbles larger than a home.

Many will be interested to know if the bubble strategy is part of this, after Health Director Brett Sutton confirmed that the concept is under "active study."

The bubbles that stretch out mean that your family may leak out to other people or households with whom you may be in close contact. These must be unique, so that the risk of infection is contained, and your private family must live in the same city or town.

It is a way of balancing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 with our need for social interaction, allowing vulnerable and isolated people to have social connections to help cope with the stress of the pandemic.

While the idea undoubtedly carries some risks, it is vital that governments implement the restrictions with compassion. A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint, and if people feel that policies are formulated with compassion, they may be more inclined to stick to long-term restrictions.

Bubbles across the Tasman River

In the current closure in Victoria, the germ bubble is limited to the people of our immediate home. Only those who have an "intimate relationship" can visit.

This increases loneliness and has a great impact on mental health. Understandably, it frustrated many single people and people from different family structures.

The bubble idea attempts to circumvent this by allowing people to come into close contact with a specific and highly exclusive group. It is a relatively new concept and was not used in the management of the SARS epidemic in 2003.

New Zealand was the first country to implement a prolonged bubble during COVID-19, allowing people to have close contact with family members outside of their homes, under the restrictions of "Alert Level 3". The expansion of her bubble was a merciful solution to the effects of the blockade on mental health.

New Zealand's approach was not only compassionate, it was realistic about modern social structure.

Socially, our important ties are complex and culturally diverse. Our understanding of what a family is includes mixed families, spouse's family members, partners, lovers, and close friends, all of whom may not share our home.

Organ leakage into a sympathetic germ bubble can benefit the community in the long run as we move in and out of confinement.

The bubble approach was also used in the UK when restrictions were relaxed in June, allowing single-person households to form a bubble with a multi-person household.

And the risks?

Despite the societal benefits, there are actually risks with an infectious virus like SARS-CoV-2. The advantages of a compassionate approach to mental health must be weighed against the disadvantages of transmission.

If the bubble system is implemented anywhere in Australia, a formal process would be required to join a germ bubble. The maximum number of people allowed in a bubble must also be limited.

The bubble must be exclusive. If you are "in a rush" with a family, you can't just decide to move to another family whenever you want. If you need to change your bubble, there should be a 14-day gap between one group of people leaving and another group heading, to reduce the risk of moving between bubbles.

A bubble tracking app can make the filtering process easier. The application must include the consent of both parties or all parties to join. The bubble system will also need to think about what to do with different regions with different degrees of transmission.

For example, if one member of a multi-family bubble lives in an area where the community is highly transitional, this brings a greater risk for the entire bubble, even if the other members of the bubble are in low transmission areas. This means that the virus can enter low transmission regions through these bubbles. People can also pose a higher degree of risk to your bubble if they work in a risky area or profession.

In epidemiology, our goal is to reduce risks as much as possible, but in the event of a prolonged pandemic, we have to leave room for compassion (without increasing risks to the community at large).

Compassionate policies create compliance

Isolation causes stress and can reduce cooperation. But a compassionate germ bubble could increase resilience by reducing feelings of isolation for people living alone, friends, extended family, and separation distressed couples.

Developing a compassionate bubble for our future lockdown plans can also help us weather a long-term pandemic characterized by multiple lockdowns and hot spots when needed. Compassion can improve a society's willingness to abide by restrictions and not just enforce them.

Authorities that respond scientifically can be considered by society as competent and trustworthy. But you can't share mercy. The safe and passionate plan will ensure there is little incentive for some to tamper with the system by attaching multiple germ bubbles. A compassionate approach, combined with appropriate checks and balances, can lead people to see authorities as trustworthy and capable of safely getting us out of COVID-19.