Households in England will only be allowed to mix from June onwards if social distancing measures are observed by the general public, a government spokesperson has said.
Under prime minister Boris Johnson’s new coronavirus roadmap two separate households made up of close family members, or “bubbles”, could be allowed to socialise within weeks.
Current restrictions prevent people from meeting up with more than one person outside their immediate household, and even then that encounter should remain socially distanced.
However, the government is considering expanding the definition of "household" to allow people to reconnect with close family members by letting two groups mix.
It is thought that allowing two households to meet one another would let families share childcare duties and free up more people to return to work.
The proposed idea is based on a New Zealand government model of household “bubbles”, in which two groups of close family members are allowed to meet up in order to support isolated people.
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Asked about the “bubbles” scheme on Tuesday, however, a Downing Street spokesperson said it would only happen “if everybody follows the rules on social distancing and we are able to keep the infection rate under control and the R rate down below one”.
This week’s loosening of the social distancing measures has taken place because the government says the “R rate” has fallen below one - where a person infected with the disease infects only one other person.
Keeping the R rate under one means the number of daily coronavirus cases will decline steadily, but a sudden increase in the R rate could mean a deadly “second spike” in cases.
The idea for “bubbles” is being considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and was included in the 50-page government guidelines for easing the lockdown published on Monday.
The document suggests a family with children would be able to incorporate a set of grandparents into their household group, for example.
But, in a footnote, it states that multiple household groups are not allowed, saying: "If Household A merges with B, Household B cannot also elect to be in a group with Household C.
"This would create a chain that would allow the virus to spread widely."