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You might feel a twinge of excitement at the prospect of BBQs and garden parties as summer hits – particularly after yesterday’s announcement by the prime minister.
Boris Johnson said as of Monday 1 June, people in England will be able to meet up with friends and family in groups of up to six people outside their homes – at beaches, in parks and private gardens – but not indoors.
People can meet “provided those from different households continue to stick to social distancing rules”, he said. However he urged people to avoid seeing others from “too many households in quick succession” to avoid transmission between different families.
The prime minister added that those who are shielding should continue to do so – and that further guidance on socialising is coming next week.
What are the rules in the UK?
The rules are slightly different for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but the premise is similar, you can meet other people from outside your household, outdoors, as long as you socially distance.
In Wales, people from two different households can meet outdoors in the same local area.
In Scotland, no more than eight people in total can meet at a time – however people are urged to keep household bubbles mutually exclusive. This means that if Gill and Kate live together; and Ahmed, Matt and Sonny live together; they can only meet up with each other. They can’t meet with any other households.
In Northern Ireland, groups of four to six people who are not part of the same household can gather outdoors, as long as they are socially distanced, which appears to be similar to the measures England is adopting.
Is the UK ready to socialise?
Experts are cautious, as the government’s science committee SAGE estimates the R value [reproduction rate] is between 0.7 and 0.9 – and there are an estimated 8,000 new cases a day in the UK.
“It’s a difficult one, because some regions of the UK might be [ready], but when you look at the overall cases reported on a daily basis, there are still a lot of cases across the UK,” Dr Nick Long, associate professor of anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science, tells HuffPost UK.
But, he says, it’s a positive step for people’s mental health. “This is clearly going to be a very popular policy and will be welcomed by many. It’s going to help the mental health and wellbeing of many people who have felt very isolated during lockdown – and even those who haven’t.”
Experts say the government should be responsive if the R rate starts to rise rapidly – and ready to tighten lockdown measures if needed. “With any kind of relaxation, it’s going to cause the reproduction number to go up a bit,” says Dr Mike Tildesley, an associate professor in infectious diseases at University of Warwick. “We need to be aware that we will potentially see a climb in cases.”
The key to keeping the infection rate down, he believes, is dependent on people maintaining social distancing when meeting others and also effective testing and tracing. “If that’s successful, we can react rapidly.”
What happened to the idea of social bubbles?
It was rumoured the UK might adopt a similar policy to other countries of having “social bubbles”. This effectively means pairing up with another household, in a mutually exclusive “bubble”, and only socialising with these people, but being able to do so indoors and not having to socially distance.
New Zealand implemented a successful bubble policy, which the government nodded to as inspiration in its recovery strategy document. Dr Long studied this policy in great detail. Initially, it was only for New Zealanders who were isolated, vulnerable or struggling to receive the care and support they needed.
People who were first prioritised to have a social bubble were those who lived alone and wanted to “bubble up” with another isolated person, people who struggled to access childcare (for example, a single parent who could use a social bubble to pool childcare with a relative or neighbour), elderly people who needed carers, and the recently bereaved. They were able to see their “bubble mates” indoors, which at the moment, no UK policy allows for.
Bubbles were expanded when it would keep people ‘safe and well’ – rather than for social purposes. This resulted in people sticking to the rules and keeping bubbles exclusive, says Dr Long.
“One of the things that was great about New Zealand was even when they allowed everyone to expand their bubble, there was a discourse of: you should only do this to keep you and others safe and well, and on the basis of need and support, rather than just wanting to socialise,” adds Dr Long.
As of yet, there has been no mention of this happening in the UK. However, Dr Long believes isolated groups should be prioritised for “bubble arrangements” as soon as possible. “It would be good to see more acknowledgement of their continued struggles in government announcements,” he says.
Tips for socialising if you’re anxious
If you’re excited to socialise but worried about catching the virus, you could establish some ground rules with the people you plan to meet up with. Are you and your mates only meeting up with each other, or are you also seeing other people? It can be helpful to know this for your own peace of mind and to determine whether – and when – you’d feel comfortable meeting up.
You should check in on issues like whether people are happy for you to use their bathroom, suggests Dr Long, as this would mean you’d need to pass through their home. Are their specific rules in place for those who do use the bathroom? Does your mum want you to wipe down anywhere with an antibacterial wipe after using the loo, for example?
“It’s going to be so important for people to maintain the 2m distance and avoid the temptation to pop indoors for a cup of tea, especially if it rains,” says Dr Long. “I actually worry this will be harder to enforce than the exclusivity of a social bubble – but hopefully it will be okay. Let’s see.”
Ultimately, he believes people in the UK will stick to the rules, because the alternative is that more people will become ill and we stay in lockdown for longer. “I think a lot of people are very responsible and take this lockdown seriously,” he adds.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.