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Rebecca Moynihan: We cannot ask those living alone to isolate further - time for social bubbles

The Labour senator is calling for the introduction of support bubbles through Covid restrictions – not just for older people, but for everyone who lives alone in this country.

Rebecca Moynihan

AT THE TIME of the last census in 2016, just under 400,000 people in Ireland were living alone. A further 200,000 households were one-parent families. 

The way we have approached the Covid-19 pandemic, and continue to approach it, has ensured that many of these people have been left entirely without social contact.  The huge contribution to loneliness that this had during the last lockdown cannot be overstated. 

There is a simple, compassionate solution to this.  We need social bubbles.

How do “support bubbles” work?

In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health and Social Care has published guidance which recognises that while it is best to limit all social interactions to reduce the spread of coronavirus, this is difficult for people. 

They have said that making a social bubble with another household “is the safest way” to expand the people you have contact with during the pandemic. The guidance is particularly aimed at single adults who live alone.  These bubbles are exclusive and you are not allowed to have multiple bubbles.

While social bubbles have only been introduced within the last month in the UK but were in place throughout the lockdown in New Zealand a country lauded for its Covid response.

At the start of their public restrictions, people living alone and those with childcare needs could form support or social bubbles. When the lockdown in New Zealand ended, any household in New Zealand could “merge” with another if that would allow people to be “safe and well”. 

If someone within the bubble becomes infected, all members are treated as close contacts and isolate accordingly. 

Research from the London School of Economics has shown that not only did social bubbles reduce loneliness and improve mental health, but bubbles were also helpful in combatting the spread of coronavirus through emphasising the need for exclusivity and a defined group of social contacts. 

Loneliness in lockdown

The framing of the discussion of lockdown and its impacts in Ireland often exclusively focuses on nuclear families. When the discussion is expanded to include older people, it is primarily in the context of cocooning and vulnerability. 

It is not fair on the approximately 600,000 people in Ireland who live alone or are lone parents to dismiss them and their needs because of “vulnerability”.   

Social bubbles will make surviving the pandemic and the lockdown easier for people. For different people, it will mean different things. It might mean you can see your partner or hug your grandchildren. 

It might mean you can visit your best friend or have a coffee with your sister. Every time I have spoken about this issue, I am inundated with messages and calls from people across the country.

This is something that so many of us found very difficult during the height of restrictions and what may hamper compliance with future restrictions. Social bubbles provide a way of identifying people who will be your social support while encouraging people to keep their contacts low and ensuring loneliness is kept at bay.

Support bubbles

The introduction of social bubbles is a way to allow people to have social contact without facilitating community spread.

People who live alone are not stupid. Nobody wants case numbers to rise.  Nobody wants to catch Covid-19. Nobody wants to infect anyone they love. 

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People do want support. We cannot continue to pretend no one in Ireland lives alone or that those who live alone do so because they never want to see anyone. 

Now more than ever, we need to do everything we can to ensure public compliance with necessary restrictions. Social bubbles are vital to public buy-in among people who live alone and could drastically improve the lives of many during this time.

Rebecca Moynihan is a Labour senator and the party’s spokesperson on housing. Find her on Twitter.

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Rebecca Moynihan

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