Countries around the world are now facing the challenge of how to ease their citizens out of lockdown, and there is no definitive rulebook they can follow.
Being cooped up for weeks has been tough on everyone, and as a columnist usually covering parties and events, it has been a particular struggle.
One option being considered by a few governments is to permit their populations to move out of self-isolation to socialize among fixed circles of friends known as “social bubbles.” But should such a move be adopted, it would trigger a host of awkward social dilemmas certain to challenge even the strongest friendships and family groups.
The struggle would continue but just in a different form — how would you decide who to include in your 10 and what if families can’t agree?
Europe could be the first to pioneer such a scheme. The U.K. government is considering adopting what it is calling a “10 friends and family” policy. People would be permitted to socialize with a maximum of 10 of their closest family members and friends for meals and social activities, and could nominate two other households to be part of their “cluster.”
The idea is also being reviewed by the Belgian government, which has also been considering allowing people to form “social bubbles” of 10 people, according to Belgian newspaper Le Soir.
I first saw the “10 friends and family” lockdown rule in the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper, which reported, “Ministers are still grappling with how to enforce the new system.”
Personally, I’m not surprised; the list of questions is endless. What happens if you nominate a friend who doesn’t choose you? What happens if you have a seismic row with a friend midway through lockdown — would the system let you swap pals? It would be a nightmare
Psychologists, however, are optimistic that the “social bubble” wouldn’t generate toil and trouble. Dr. Linda Papadopoulos is well-versed in decoding human anthropology in confined quarters, having been the first resident shrink on reality-television show phenomenon “Big Brother.”
“At the start of Covid-19, people would have been like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous!’” she said. “But when we’ve not been allowed to see anybody bar immediate family for close to two months, I think people will see it as progress and a welcome development.”
The exercise seems a social minefield that would escalate anxiety during an already fraught time. As Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy and a behavioral scientist, noted, “The proposal makes perfect sense from an epidemiological perspective.
“But from a psychological perspective I am not sure that it works at all…any group assembling could simply claim that everyone present was part of the same cluster, and without spectacular levels of bureaucracy it would be impossible to establish the veracity of this. It would re-establish the sight of large groups of people as a norm.”
He added, “I think it falls into that category of “excellent science, bad policy.” Yet Papadopoulos played down the prospect of any awkwardness. “This is not about ranking people as our best friends — it’s about what makes most sense,” she said.
I’m not convinced. My wife and I, who live in north London with our two children, have a different taste in friends — I suspect there is more than one person on my list she wouldn’t have in the house. I should really pick my brother, especially as he’s a doctor.
Ideally, I would select a mix of close family and congenial friends. One of the most entertaining people I know is the ‘fashion banker’ Euan Rellie, co-founder of BDA Partners, who divides his time between Manhattan and his native London. He would be on my “10 friends and family” list, I told him. Would I be on his? “You would be a candidate,” Rellie replied tactfully.
Rellie reckons the “social bubble” is a “terrible idea. Life gets very boring in any group if it is just all the same people who always gather together. It speaks to the worst thing about lockdown, which is you can’t meet different, fascinating people. Where I work — mergers and acquisitions — the fun lies in finding the interesting new person to do business with for the next deal.”
A hedge-fund manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, joked he would choose “Warren Buffett and nine of his friends and family” to be in his cluster.
Yet David Buik, a veteran City of London commentator and consultant to alternative trading venue Aquis Exchange, believes financiers will have no trouble adjusting to the “social bubble.”
I remain apprehensive about the “10 friends and family” idea, which is clearly just as divisive as other aspects of lockdown policy. If governments give it the green light, then, adopting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim in “Tender is the Night” that “New friends can often have a better time together than old friends,” I will include a few potentially interesting strangers on my list.
But then, curling up with an old classic — I’m referring to a novel, of course — might be the safer option.