Covid-19 Level 5 support bubbles: Everything you need to know

Who is allowed to form one? Can one be for childcare? How to choose who to bubble with?

Social bubbles and pods have become an integral part of the pandemic response in countries around the world. They are regarded as a safe way to allow households to stave off loneliness, share childcare responsibilities and provide care and company for people who live alone.

Ireland has been slow to get on board with bubbles, but Level 5 makes provision for them. So what exactly are our "support bubbles" and how do they differ from New Zealand's? Who is allowed to form one? Can you use a bubble for childcare? How should you decide who to bubble with? Who gets to bubble with your parent? And what do you do if it all goes wrong?

What are support bubbles?

Support bubbles have nothing to do with the therapeutic effects of sparkling beverages. The idea is to allow two households – one of which is a single-adult household – to merge together and essentially become one. "In my field, we're already seeing people who are really struggling. And loneliness is a particular concern at the moment. So any additional measures to alleviate loneliness should be welcomed and encouraged," says Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting: The Teenage Years, which is published this week.

But before you rush off to invite the neighbours round, familiarise yourself with the regulations. Because bubbles only apply to limited types of households, and not all single adults can apply.


Who can form a support bubble?

Support bubbles can be formed by people in the following categories: people who live alone; one-parent families with children under 18; people who share parenting or custody arrangements; people living with a partner who has dementia and needs full-time care; people who live alone and have the support of a carer.

People in those categories can bubble up to their heart’s content, and there are no restrictions on the type of household they can merge with.

You can’t bubble up with a household that is already bubbling with someone else. And wherever possible, “you should choose a household in your locality to form your support bubble, but it can be outside the 5 kilometre limit.”

Unfortunately, one thing is clear: you definitely can’t form a support bubble if you’re a two-parent family and need to share childcare or lifts with another household. Childcare is not part of the purpose of the bubble system.

How does this compare to other countries?

New Zealand first introduced bubbles as part of its lockdown plan in March. Bubbles expanded to allow more people to mix as the country moved through the various stages of lockdown. A report by the London School of Economics found the system helped isolated and vulnerable people and those with childcare burdens to get the support they needed, while minimising the risk of the virus spreading.

In the UK, bubbles are open to all single-adult households, with local variations. In Northern Ireland, a bubble can be formed between two households of any size, so long as neither house is part of an additional bubble. Wales, which is moving into a “firebreak” lockdown, still permits up to four households in social bubbles to mingle, but nobody can be part of more than one bubble.

Let’s say you meet the criteria. How do you decide who goes into your bubble?

The first step is to decide who you’d like to bubble up with. “When you consider who is in your bubble, try to make sure it is sustainable. Your bubble should be selected, not collected. Don’t just think, ‘I really like that person.’ Think, ‘what do I need to get through this?’ Try to look at what you have in common – if you want someone to climb the Sugarloaf with, if that’s within your 5km, choose someone who is going to be active and share your love of the outdoors,” advises Joanna Fortune.

"Choose as wisely as you can," agrees Allison Keating, chartered psychologist and author of The Secret Lives of Adults. "Going into a bubble with someone else is a risk, but it's a risk worth taking, because loneliness is much a bigger risk."

If you meet the criteria, you can bubble up with another household of any kind. So should you choose a household like yours, or one that is bigger or smaller? “That is unique to the individual. One single person might just love being part of a family; somebody else might feel lonelier. Ask yourself, how can you meet your emotional and physical needs? And who fits that bill for you?” says Keating.

Look for people who have similar lifestyle arrangements to you, Fortune advises. So if you live alone with just one teenager, it might not be a good idea to bubble with a two-parent, three-child family, no matter how well you get on, because your lifestyles will be quite different. “There is a practical as well as a nurturing and engaging component,” she says.

Who gets to bubble with Mam or Dad?

If you’re an older person living alone with a number of adult children in separate households, how do you decide which one to bubble with, and avoid the consequent emotional meltdown? There may be no way to do it entirely dispassionately, warns Fortune. “That is an emotional choice,” she says. She suggests the adult siblings and the parent get on a call together and try to make the decision together as an extended family – “without letting it become a Cabinet meeting”. Consider things like “which of the family is most available during this time; who has least demands professionally and personally, and who can be the most available to their parent during that time. It’s also about recognising this is about connection and a privilege, and not just a duty.”

Remember that the regulations do allow for meetings with one other household in an outdoor setting, which isn’t a garden. Travel beyond 5km is allowable for family reasons, including care, but not social visits.

How do you pop the bubble question?

Be direct and just ask. It's a good idea, says Keating, to say at the outset what your expectations are, especially where friendship bubbles between adults living alone are concerned. "The reason why Christmas often goes wrong is that people go into it with very different expectations." So set out if you plan to come round for a Netflix binge every night. If there are children involved, will you share childcare? Are your requirements mostly practical, or would you like an occasional shoulder to cry on too? And don't take it personally if they don't want to bubble up with you. This is a very challenging times for everybody, and "it's not a popularity contest", says Fortune.

Avoid your bubble popping: How do you set the ground rules?

“Don’t start on the basis of what you won’t do. Don’t come at anyone with the list of rules, because actually, we’re designed to resist that kind of approach,” says Fortune. Instead, focus on what you will do – for example, be exclusive and prioritise the bubble over everyone else; follow the public health guidelines; check in with each other regularly.

The rules don’t necessarily need to be written down, unless someone in your bubble is stickler for Excel spreadsheets. Sharing them via WhatsApp might be a more casual option. And it might be best to avoid the word “rules”, Fortune says. “I prefer the word structure, because structure is flexible, and adaptable. It holds the broad scaffolding in place with regard to priorities, but within that there is movement.”

Keating suggests you “think about what could make your bubble pop. What type of things are really important to figure to you and your boundaries. Say them aloud at the outset, and if that causes a problem, it was never going to work out anyway.”

Check your Covid values: What happens when a difference of opinion arises?

Let’s say you find out your bubble mate hasn’t been wearing their mask over their nose, or has been cheating on you by seeing someone else for coffee or – worse – bags of cans. How do you approach it? “The most important factor in choosing your bubble is do you share the same Covid values?” says Keating.

If you’re starting from the same place, a calm conversation about what your concerns are should sort out most issues. If you make your point reasonably and they can’t see it from your point of view, then the bubble was never going to work.

What happens if somebody in the bubble develops a symptom that you think is suspicious, but they insist they’re fine?

You can say you’re concerned about them and suggest they get tested, says Fortune. “You can go as far as saying, ‘I’m asking that you consider getting tested’. But you cannot make somebody do it. If they won’t, and you’re unhappy with their decision, then you have to take responsibility, and make choices and decisions around that and keep yourself safe and comfortable” – even if it means the end of the bubble.

Keating says that one non-negotiable rule has to be that “if someone develops a symptom, they get it checked out. That has to be deal-breaker.” The government regulations say that if anyone in the bubble develops symptoms or tests positive, everyone needs to follow the self-isolation guidance and restrict their movements.