July 6, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Bubbles: A short history

Last week we heard a lot about bubbles, especially school bubbles and travel bubbles. This metaphor has been bubbling up for a while during the pandemic and I became curious about how and where it emerged.

Then I saw a tweet from Gareth Enticott which contained an article about New Zealand researchers who had come up with the concept of ‘bubble’. It was then taken up enthusiastically by Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister, and subsequently became a model for other countries. In this blog post I want to tell the story of how the bubbles spread. But, of course, this is only scratching the very surface…

A life-affirming idea

The article indicated by Gareth appeared in the Otago Bulletin Board – a news website maintained by the University of Otago. It says that “Dr Tristram Ingham, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago, Wellington, developed the concept [of bubble] while advising the Ministry of Health on the COVID-19 response for the disability sector”.

What he and his co-workers wanted to do was to capture “the imagination of both the Prime Minister and the nation, and help[ed] frame life under Alert Levels 4 and 3 more positively”. This was the time when social/physical distancing became a new mode of life around the world, but as Ingham said: “We didn’t want at risk communities to be passive recipients of their fate. The methods had to be around empowering individuals and whānau [an extended family or community of related families who live together in the same area] to have control over their own life and situations for self-preservation.”

This empowering and life-affirmative aspect of ‘bubbles’ is something I hadn’t really appreciated until reading this article.

The familiarity of bubbles

But why bubbles? As Ingham pointed out: “Bubbles are a universally known concept, which could be made appealing to children or to people that didn’t have a public health background. They could think of a bubble as a fragile yet beautiful structure that has to be nurtured and preserved. And it introduced the concept of making sure you don’t burst your bubble.”

As we say in metaphor circles, bubbles are a rich and familiar ‘source’ domain that can be easily mapped onto an abstract ‘target’ domain, such as pandemic risk management, and lead to new ways of thinking, talking and acting.

As Peter Adams pointed out in an article for the University of Auckland: “We are very familiar with the behaviour of bubbles: they froth on the ocean, they slide down the dishes, and they glide by on those summer afternoons when children form them with detergent and plastic hoops. The use of bubbles here conjures up an image of me and my loved ones floating around inside a transparent membrane that separates my group out from others and protects us from unwanted intrusion.”

Viral bubbles

The concept went viral and spread around the world. I wanted to follow this spread a bit and therefore looked at the news database Nexis to see how it went. This was not easy, as ‘bubble’, even with ‘AND covid’ ‘OR coronavirus’ brought tens of thousands of hits. So I narrowed the search to ‘bubble AND social group AND covid OR coronavirus’ and that, finally, gave me 82 hits that I could look at in diachronic order. I also looked for ‘Jacinda Ardern AND bubble’ just to see when New Zealand first talked about this. And supplemented it all with some incidental finds on the internet….not the neatest search I have ever done!

Creativity and flexibility

Bubbles as metaphors have been around for a long time and have been used in various contexts, from rumours bubbling up, to the south sea bubble, to social media bubbles which, we are all told, are not good for us. However, in the context of the pandemic, bubbles became more ‘real’ in a sense. Bubbles came to stand for what some call ‘micro-communities’ (Indian Express June 5, 2020).

Here is one visual representation I found, probably originating in China, but I can’t find the artist and here are many more.

The word bubbles attracted lots of other words and so we got : social bubbles, quarantine bubbles, home-bubbles, iso-bubbles (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June), travel bubbles, bubbles mates, support bubbles, school bubbles, year-group bubbles, class bubbles – even quaranteam as a synonym for bubble, invented in March by a British couple quarantining in South Korea (Mirror, 7 March). In the United States, a synonym of bubbles was ‘pods’, it seems, although it seems that the concept, although spreading informally, was never part of a formal policy, as it was in other countries more keen on social distancing and isolation.

It should also be stressed that bubbles do not only encourage linguistic creativity, they are also flexible and adaptive enough to allow for changing uses over time. As an article in Slate pointed out on 6 May: “What makes the bubble idea an effective communication tool is not just its simplicity but also its ability to morph along with changing regulations. As New Zealand now moves into a lighter stage of restrictions, the concept of the bubble is adjusting with it. Under the more relaxed alert Level 3, New Zealand authorities are allowing bubbles to slowly open.”

Let’s start at the beginning.


The end of March, when New Zealand went into strict lockdown, seems to have been the time when bubbles first became a thing in New Zealand. As Peter Adams described in his article from which I already quoted above: “On March 23, when declaring the lockdown, Ardern said, ‘We have a window of opportunity to break the chain of community transmission.’ Her reference to ‘windows’ and ‘chains’ make use of common metaphors, perhaps too common to register specifically in our minds. However, in her next daily briefing she floated another more specific metaphor. We heard her encourage us to, ‘stick to your bubble,’ and ‘you can’t spend time with other people outside of your bubble’. […] By whatever process Ardern and her team came up with the bubble metaphor, during the course of the next two months it has proved a very effective way of communicating some key understandings.”

We now know by what process they came up with the concept! Let’s now look more closely at how it spread through time and space.

It seems that ‘bubbles’ first appeared in the news in an article on 24 March in The New Zealand Herald quoting Jacinda Ardern. At the same time, in a complementary article, one of New Zealand’s foremost pandemic communicators, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, answered questions (she also produced the imaged featured above, which is part of a famous gif).

The article said: “She reiterated Jacinda Ardern’s words of seeing our household ‘as our bubble’ and stay within that bubble. Wiles says there are exceptions to the ‘one household, one bubble’ guideline, such as parents with shared custody of children. Those two households can be considered one bubble.… You can help people out but ‘do not enter their bubble’. The exception is for people who live alone, who can have a ‘buddy system’ set up with someone else who lives alone. They can enter each other’s ‘bubbles’.”

Like ‘lockdown’, ‘bubbles’ are rooted in the conceptual metaphor of a ‘container’. A container metaphor is an ontological metaphor in which some concept is represented as having an inside and an outside, and as capable of holding something else. But bubbles and lockdown are quite different, of course. Lockdown conjured up images of prison, entrapment and house arrest, of crime and punishment, while bubbles conjure up images of (fragile) protection, responsibility and mutual support. Both play an important role in the ‘containment’ of a pandemic disease.


On 5 April, when Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital with Covid-19, bubbles were talked about in The Guardian here in the UK: “Before the lockdown, Ms Ardern asked Kiwis to ‘apply common sense’ and shrink down their social group to ‘a small group of individuals who are part of your bubble… the bubble you must maintain’ for the month.” That article was reproduced in many newspapers which also reported on a New Zealand ‘bonk ban’….

On 15 April, the MailOnline used the concept when listing 275 ways of slowing the spread of the virus devised by a team at the University of Cambridge: “’Focus on constraining ‘long connections between people in different social groups who seldom or rarely interact (e.g. people with a shared hobby or interest rather than short connections between people in similar social groups who regularly interact with one another (e.g. close family, colleagues, close friends),’ the report authors write. They go on to suggest governments might ‘Ask people to identify their bubble – being everyone they live with or must have contact with during ‘lockdown’- and ask people to stay as much as possible within their bubble, ‘a piece of advice they apparently borrowed from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden. ‘Making this happen will be up to the people responsible for every element of society,’ said Professor Sutherland.”

From end of April bubbles appeared in newspaper headlines, and puns emerged around ‘burst bubbles’ etc. The concept was becoming mainstream in the UK, Canada, the US, Belgium etc. but with varying degrees of formal or policy endorsement. The small sample of articles I looked at did not contain any press coverage from the United States.


In early May, when bubbles became more and more popular, various disadvantages of bubbles were discussed, for example, interestingly, on Fox News (3 May): “MCDOWELL: …The Belgian government is toying with an idea that can help limit the pandemic. It would allow people to form social bubbles of 10 people maximum, no overlapping with other groups. …  GUTFELD: This is a bad idea because it’ll cause social signaling. Like oh, hey, guys, I can’t see you tonight. I’m in Bret Baier’s bubble. […] You know, everybody’s going to be humble bragging about what bubble they’re in. And then how do families divvy up a bubble if you got like three kids. It’s going to be a new kind of disaster, domestic strife.”

There were some social dilemmas around bubbles, as discussed in the New York Times, but I don’t think it was as bad as that.


On 5 June The Telegraph (again, one should add, interestingly!) even wrote about how to decline a bubble invitation: “Those who dreamt up the idea of social bubbles clearly had no consideration for the chaos that would ensue. ‘If you decline to be in someone’s social bubble, you run the risk of not being included in anyone’s social group,’ says Harrold. ‘If an offer comes along, and it’s people you feel comfortable with, you’ve got to accept it.’ He advises that it can be helpful to think of the social bubble as an official contract; sign up, try it out, and leave if it’s not working for you.”

June was the month when bubbles became mainstream. And empirical studies of bubbles were undertaken at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

On Wednesday 10 June, Boris Johnson made an announcement that adults who lived alone would be allowed to form a “support bubble” with another household. However, it seems this was not a straightforward ‘we follow the science’ decision. As reported in The Guardian, scientists were ambivalent, it seems: “Other Sage documents point to the extreme concern scientists had about the introduction of social bubbles whereby households could meet up to form small social groups. In mid-May, the experts urged ‘strong caution’ over bringing in bubbles when other distancing measures had only just been lifted.”

There is thus a difference between New Zealand and the UK. In the former, bubbles were part of the lockdown policy right from the start, in the latter they were part of a gradual easing of lockdown policy. This was the case in most countries, such as Belgium and also Canada where people began to talk about ‘double bubbles’ in June. Even in Germany there was talk of ‘Blasen’ or ‘die Bubble’.


On 4 July, some people ‘celebrated’ ‘Independence Day’, when social distancing rules were substantially relaxed in England. People could go to pubs and restaurants, and bubbles became a literal reality, as in this picture of dining pods (and here is a different one featured by CNN; and and older version of a bubble tent in care homes in Germany)!

At the moment the following rules apply when going out for a drink, as reported by The Sun on 4 July: “Punters who meet indoors can only meet in groups of up to two households or support bubbles. Outdoor meet ups should only take place in groups of up to 2 households (or support bubbles), or a group of 6 people from any number of households.”

Bubbles, bubbles…

Since Jacinda Ardern first told New Zealanders to form their own bubbles, the bubble has gone the way of all good viral concepts. As Dr Ingham, it’s inventor, said: “We lost control of the narrative. What I think is quite interesting and ironic is that it seems to be being picked up internationally and a whole bunch of other academics are starting writing about what it means, and the symbology of it. In some cases, they are reading more into it than I even thought at the time.” So we now got meta-bubbles and this post is one of them, I am afraid to say.

Added 28 August: An interesting discussion on bubbles initiated by Alice Roberts on Twitter – in the US they are called ‘pods’ it seems. Are school bubbles ‘monster bubbles‘?

Image: Wikimedia Commons, part of a gif by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris



Posted in infectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors