Last week the government found yet another scapegoat for their ineptitude, although this one is all the more predictable: students and young people. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, drew the ire of the younger Radio 1 Newsbeat audience by condescendingly reminding us “Don’t kill your Gran”. He continued by naming France and Spain as examples where second waves of coronavirus had started amongst young people. He warned that in England a third of all new cases in the previous week had been among people aged 20-29. Whilst not contending the truth behind this, it is the unspoken, insidious implication that it is young people’s social activity causing this spike. This is the reason Hancock describes the start of the university year as a “concern”. Meanwhile, his counterparts ram children back into classrooms with no equivalent worry, despite them having the third highest number of new cases as an age group.
Young people are socialising. This summer I’ve been to 21st birthday celebrations, and away with friends, both with absolutely no social distancing. The illegal raves in London, Leeds and Manchester are not a bone of contention in this argument. However, it is ludicrous to suggest that at 29 years old people have stopped socialising. People of all ages have been booking ‘staycations’ with no social distancing. Nobody within government batted an eyelid as generations came together to dance the VE day Conga in May (at a time when lockdown was still the dish of the day). The thousands who flocked to the beaches throughout the summer were all aged 20-29 I suppose, Mr Hancock?
This almost universal flouting of the rules had its origins in another of the government’s mistakes: Dominic Cummings (you really thought we would forget about him?). Ever since his unauthorised eye test at Barnard Castle there has been a distinct feeling that if the rules did not apply to him, then why should they apply to the rest of us? Where was the sanctimonious concern for Dom’s grandma, Matt? Before this I would have followed the most recent regulations religiously but that episode, combined with the ever more confusing nature of the rules, has led to my devotion waning. I’m not the only one. YouGov states only 30% of people understood the new “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save lives” slogan compared to 91% of people for the original “Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” message.
This inter-generational finger pointing is also besides the point. In fact, it is exactly what the government would want, in order to distract and shift the blame from themselves. This is an activity in which they excel, in fact. The exam results debacle was another classic example of the government failing our generation. They then had the gall to shift the blame entirely onto Ofqual and its now resigned head Sally Collier. Unfortunately, due to us being a non-voting generation, we make the perfect scapegoats.
Make no mistake, the government has brought this second spike of covid cases upon themselves. After all it was Rishi Sunak proudly telling us all to “eat to help out”. The opening of pubs and restaurants was like red rag to John Bull. Whilst the reopening of the economy was necessary, don’t pay people to go out and socialise, and then blame them for doing so. Likewise, the reopening of shopping malls provided a much needed boost for economic recovery. However, in Westfield London on bank holiday Monday people were packed in like sardines, although a sardine probably has a better chance of wearing a mask properly than the people shopping that day; it was a breeding ground for a second spike of cases. The easing of restrictions which caused this was not something young people were clamouring for. Only 39-40% of adults under 50 supported the changes, compared to 50% of people over 50 according to YouGov.
What would be more constructive would be a nuanced examination of the reasons for this spike amongst young people. A government report in July 2019 highlights that 44% of people working in hospitality and tourism are aged 16-24. These are the people who served us when pubs and restaurants opened to help boost the economy, only to be lambasted for doing so. The amount of young people who have a driving licence and own a car has been on the decline since the 1990s. As a result young people have to rely more heavily on public transport which are more crowded and more likely to spread disease. Research has shown that since 2017, the average age of co-living tenants has risen from 23.9 to 28.2 years old. Young people living communally as well as in university halls makes the spread of the virus much easier in this age group demographic.
Perhaps, this is a more nuanced explanation for why we have seen a spike in younger age groups. A young frontline worker goes to work at a restaurant full of people eating out to help out. Either there, or on their commute home on a crowded bus they contract the virus. Unknowingly they then pass it on to the rest of their friends in their small, overpriced, shared accommodation. If only Matt Hancock wasn’t ignoring this version of the truth, we might avoid the lazy judgement that our generation was the one that caused a second lockdown.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr