Of hairclips and coronavirus - how contact clustering may allow a partial lockdown exit for young kids

Prof Stefan Flasche
Child playing on seesaw

Parenting is a steep learning curve for everyone. For me, this includes newly acquired skills for long hair management of my four year old daughter, Isabella. Hair clips are a key accessory for that. The problem with hair clips is that they are easy to lose and impossible to track down again - at the end of the day they could be at school, at a friends house, music class, or the swimming pool lockers. 

The lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has largely mitigated this problem. These days, lost hair clips really must be somewhere at home. However, being confined to home presents other problems. While I miss my weekly squash sessions, I am lucky that home isolation is largely a nuisance for me. For Isabella it is much more than that. 

At four years old she has been missing her friends from day one of the lockdown and, unlike some teenagers, she does not communicate well digitally. Before an age at which (from my perspective) communication is done largely via cryptic acronyms and emojis on ever changing social media platforms even pre-pandemic, her social life is very much centered around close physical contact with her best friends.

We are doing the best we can to keep her entertained at home and during the once-a-day outdoor exercise sessions, but extending our current “no contact beyond the household” lifestyle to include one or two of Isabella's closest friends would tremendously help her mental health and social development. It also comes at only little additional risk of losing hair clips. 

Better yet, if these one or two friends would also exclusively play within this playgroup cluster, then a found hair clip would be easily returned to the rightful owner, because there is little chance that hair clips of children from other play groups would add confusion.

As you may have guessed, I am actually not that concerned about hair clips. Mitigating the spread of coronavirus, however, involves similar considerations. We all need to reduce our contacts as much as possible to help slow down the spread of the virus. The contacts that we cannot avoid are largely household based. If we keep our contacts largely within the household there is a limited risk that the virus enters or leaves the household. 

This principle could similarly apply to small size and fixed children’s play groups. The agreement of exclusivity in this is central to success, as it limits the risk for transmission chains. As a result, such social contact clustering for children would allow them to mingle with their friends while only adding a rather marginal risk for coronavirus infection from, or transmission to, those outside of the play group and their respective households.

Going even further, there is potential for this household based clustering strategy to be applied to non-child households who are similarly struggling from a lack of direct social contacts as the lockdown restrictions begin to relax. This may include loneliness stricken single person households or the ability to visit family, but the same principle applies: exclusiveness is important for a sustained interruption of transmission chains. 

In the coming weeks the team of modellers at LSHTM will quantify the trade-off that these potential relaxations of the current lockdown would imply.

As the UK government announces at least three more weeks of lockdown, and with little reason to believe that in three weeks time the coronavirus threat will have subsided, (play group) clustering could present a more sustainable way forward to keep families with young children and others sane and safe.

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