It’s been called the four-person puzzle. If you could only have the same four family members or friends to dinner for a few weeks of coronavirus lockdown, who would you choose? That is the dilemma the Belgian government has handed its citizens as it moves to the next phase in easing restrictions on everyday life.
From Sunday, every household in Belgium can invite up to four guests to their home. Two sets of four people make a "corona bubble", who can visit each other's homes. No one else is allowed into the domestic social circle. The concept opens up the biggest social minefield of the coronavirus lockdown.
Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, announced the plan last week, after being accused of prioritising the economy over people’s wishes to be reunited with friends and family. Allowing social bubbles to start on Sunday, Mother’s Day in Belgium and much of continental Europe, is no accident.
“The physical separation from those whom we love has in some cases become unbearable,” Wilmès said, but visitors are told not to hug or exchange the typical three-kiss greeting. The government expects guests to stay 1.5 metres apart and suggests people meet in gardens or on terraces where possible. Authorities say it is impossible to police the policy, so they are relying on people’s sense of civic duty.
Belgians, especially large families or those where one or both parents have remarried, are already contemplating their choices. “It’s terribly complicated. I understand the spirit, but the letter [of the law] is completely impossible,” said Anne, a 45-year-old finance director, who preferred not to give her surname.
She lives in Brussels with her husband and two teenage daughters. "Do we elect a full family of four of whom they are our sole contact and we are their sole contact? That means I can't allow any of my kids' friends to visit them."
Her priority is to see her teenage son, who lives with his father and has asthma, meaning he has been isolated from the rest of the family. But she doesn’t want to cut her two daughters off from their friends. “I don’t intend to keep a flipchart of who is seeing who,” she said. “I think it is more important to get into the spirit of it than the letter.”
There has been a lot of confusion about the letter of the policy. "The problem is that the way the idea was communicated was not very clear from the start," said Karen Phalet, a professor in psychology at the Catholic University of Leuven. Many people did not realise that all four guests were meant to come from the same household.
Epidemiologists advising the government chose the number four because it matches current capacity to do contact tracing if someone falls ill. Pairing two households also reduces the risk-multiplier effect that would come from allowing more varied mixing, but epidemiological models do not square with how people socialise in real life.
“If one family can have contacts with one family for Mother’s Day, we have to make a choice, either the mother or the mother-in-law,” Phalet said. “It’s a hard choice for some families. Is it children’s friends? Is it parents or is it grandparents who have the priority?”
She says the idea to connect just two households is not the way people normally socialise, and that raises questions about whether the policy can work: “If the distance between what people normally do and the restriction is too large I think it’s a bit risky.”
Belgium’s “corona bubble” is similar to the German approach, where people from two separate households are allowed to meet from this weekend under the new relaxation of the country’s lockdown.
Only one person per household was previously able to meet a person from another household.
In theory, two families or two couples may now meet, providing they observe the 1.5-metre physical distancing rule and face coverings are worn if they meet outside.
It has not been specified whether a family can meet up with one family on one day and another family the next. The assumption is that that is the case but it is yet to be clarified. These new rules will be in place until June 5th, by which time they will have been reviewed.
Up to 10 people
In Spain, which has been under one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, the government has said that groups of up to 10 people will be able to gather in private homes or outdoors from Monday, but only in areas of the country that have been given permission to move to the second phase of the lockdown de-escalation plan.
About 51 per cent of people in Spain, including those in the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands, will move to the next phase on Monday. The Madrid and Barcelona regions, two of the hardest-hit areas, will remain in the preliminary phase for the time being.
Back in Belgium, households have been making up their minds. Phalet, who specialises in child psychology, says she will prioritise her children’s social life over her own. She thinks school closures are really hard for children everywhere. “We know [social networks] are very important, not just for their wellbeing, but in terms of normative contexts. If they meet other peers they can also learn from each other”
On Mother’s Day, Phalet and her siblings will meet their 81-year old mother via Zoom.
For now, the Belgian government’s main message is that people should stay at home as much as possible. “I am hoping that when contract tracing is in place we can get some social life back pretty soon in a way that is responsible,” Phalet said. “But we are not there yet.” – Guardian