The Christmas bubble

The UK goes crazy with its Christmas bubble guidelines.

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here.


Public health officials face an important trade-off in messaging. Do you provide a simple but clear guideline or do you provide one that is more complex but allows people more options and choices? Or you could be the UK.

When I first heard about the UK’s Covid Christmas guidelines that would allow people to create a bubble with up to three families/households joining together, I figured it would be on the more complex with more choices variety. You know, you can have a gathering but not one that is too large and one that seems contained. But then I read the guidelines.

Between 23 and 27 December:

  • you can form an exclusive ‘Christmas bubble’ composed of people from no more than three households

  • you can only be in one Christmas bubble

  • you cannot change your Christmas bubble

  • you can travel between tiers and UK nations for the purposes of meeting your Christmas bubble

  • you can only meet your Christmas bubble in private homes or in your garden, places of worship, or public outdoor spaces

  • you can continue to meet people who are not in your Christmas bubble outside your home according to the rules in the tier where you are staying

  • you cannot meet someone in a private dwelling who is not part of your household or Christmas bubble

You should travel to meet those in your Christmas bubble and return home between the 23 and 27 December. Anyone travelling to or from Northern Ireland may travel on the 22 and 28 December.

You can see here that it is more than just gather with at most two other households. There is some Highlander type emphasis, “there can only be one” and some FAQ obviousness “you cannot change your Christmas bubbles” but then things get weird. All of a sudden you have to graft this on to the UK’s tier system which itself is quite complex. Then it dictates where your bubble can go. Normally, bubbles are just bubbles and just move together. Not these ones. You can be at home (which is what I had thought this whole thing was about) but then it had to tag outdoor public spaces which, let’s face it, have low Covid spreading risk. But surely in public spaces there are other people with their own bubbles. How close can the bubbles get to one another? This is starting to get quite difficult.

Then comes the interesting kicker “you can continue to meet people who are not in your Christmas bubble outside your home according to the rules in the tier where you are staying.” Tiers are basically regions where there is differing Covid-19 prevalence. Less restrictions in low prevalence areas. More in high prevalence ones. That makes sense but those things are changing. Which leads to the whole important question: which region should you actually form your bubble in? Most people might think you should actually go to tiers with low prevalence. That makes sense but what that means is you are encouraging people to come from a tier with high prevalence to one with low prevalence and mix with people there who have fewer restrictions. The alternative is to go the other way which involves no change in net risk within the household but less risk of the travel itself causing Covid to spread between regions. The better idea would be that anyone travelling would just have to stay in their bubble and adhere to the highest tier of restrictions. But you can see here how the whole thing is breaking down.

But it all gets worse. Some people are already in support bubbles — comprising more than one household technically. What happens then? It turns out they are all just one household. So that means that if people within a support bubble want to spend Christmas with other people, they are out of luck. They are bubble locked in. If you are in a childcare bubble, the UK just gave up and said you can continue to do whatever there. And if you have divorced parents well “Children (under-18) whose parents do not live together may be part of both parents’ Christmas bubbles, if their parents choose to form separate bubbles. Nobody else should be in two bubbles.” Suffice it to say, you are going to need some complicated modelling software to solve the people allocation problem based on this.

It actually gets worse.

You are allowed to form a different Christmas bubble from the people you live with normally. If you and the people you are living with want to be in different Christmas bubbles, you can choose to stay somewhere else with different people for this period and form a Christmas bubble with that household and one other household (this will count as three households). You should check the guidance on households where everybody is not in the same Christmas bubble below.

This is the UK playing for people who want to get away from each other over Christmas rather than come together. Here you are again locked into a bubble but you can sort of expand the bubble but what if, just hypothetically, it is like this: Alice and Bob live together. Alice wants to spend Christmas with her family and Bob wants to spend Christmas with his. Sounds like we are fine except that Bob’s family has his brother Seamus who lives with Kylie usually who has a different family. Which of Bob or Seamus is out of luck here and, let’s face it, this was a pretty easy one! If you are a student you are, on the other hand, severed from your term-time household during Christmas so … I guess that’s OK. Except that they appear to be relaxing constraints for friggin’ students!

You might be thinking we should check the guidance. Well here you are:

If you have chosen to form a different Christmas bubble from other people in your household - the people you live with normally - you should take additional steps to prevent the opportunity for the virus to spread within your household, and between bubbles.

This might include:

  • staying with another member of your Christmas bubble between 23 and 27 December where possible

  • taking extra precautions such as cleaning surfaces and contact points like door handles and letting in as much fresh air as possible after someone has visited your household

Oh great. We get to the end and the guidance is just to be careful and carry on!

Now that endpoint — just be careful — is actually the endpoint of pretty much every path. I know because I traced them. I suspect that had the UK government tried to finish the flow chart they would have had to have had so many meetings that the pandemic would have run its course by the time the guidelines were issued.

This entire matter has gone off the rails. And we haven’t got to the issue that there are people involved and the less sensible you make the guidance, the more likely people will not actually bother to follow it.

Here is what the UK government really wanted to say. “Look, you can go spend Christmas with your loved ones. But keep it small (maybe just a couple of other households), just one event, try not to travel, assess the risks based on where people live, take care of the elderly, meet outdoors if it is nice enough out and otherwise remember you are in a pandemic and you want everyone to be able to celebrate Christmas next year.”

The problem is that they haven’t said that. But the good news is that just discussing how to adhere to these guidelines will allow you to spend lots of time talking about whether you are following them and how stupid they are than the dire circumstances you are all faced this year and will continue to face next year.


What did I miss?