A study by a team of researchers from the Oxford Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science suggests creating ‘social bubbles’ to increase the efficiency of social distancing measures while reducing their psychological harm.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and carried out in collaboration with researchers from Zurich, models different strategies for social distancing after lockdown measures are loosened. 

Based on the results, the authors suggest repeatedly interacting with the same social contacts, for instance with people who live in the same neighbourhood, thus creating micro-communities. 

The study states: “Instead of blanket self-isolation policies, the emphasis on similar, community-based, and repetitive contacts is both easy to understand and implement thus making distancing measures more palatable over longer periods of time.”

Cherwell spoke to the lead author of the article, Dr. Per Block, about how this could be applied to universities.

How feasible do you think the ‘social bubbles’ model is in a campus context?

“In principle, social bubbles or other forms of localising contact in small groups can help reduce the risk of disease spread. Different strategies, like limiting face-to-face teaching to small groups within the same degree and year could be an approach, with the college structure in Oxford adding additional structure to interaction that can be exploited. 

“Something to consider in either case is how this can be done with the teachers/ lecturers, who might be a potential bridge between bubbles. Other approaches, like block-structuring courses (taking only one course at a time but then over a shorter amount of time) could be solutions. 

“However, while I believe this could mitigate risks of wide-spread infection the exact implementation would most likely differ by departments, given the different ways in which curricula are structured. So I think this model is in principle feasible, but implementation might not be trivial and would require some thought.”

When do you think would be an ideal point to move from self-isolation to strategic distancing?

“If a university agrees to implement [social bubbles], deciding on the time point would need to consider the risks and benefits of this approach. The risks depend very much on the exact implementation and the assumed prevalence of infection and risk of transmission; thus, assessing the risk would require further custom-made models that take the local contact patterns into account. Without such models, it is hard to know when the benefits would outweigh the risks.”

The Guardian has reported that several UK universities are planning to implement ‘social bubble’ strategies when campuses reopen. Under plans being discussed at Staffordshire University, students would interact only with others on their courses and year groups when accessing campus facilities. 

The University states on their website that they are considering a ‘social bubbles’ approach, and have announced that colleges and the University will be open: “We are considering a number of options for ensuring the safety of our students and staff, including a ‘household’ approach within Colleges. However, the arrangements have not yet been confirmed. Further details will follow over the Long Vacation.”

Image credit: Charlotte Bunney