Blame young people, says blameless government
Image: Nick Kane via Unsplash

By August, it felt as if we’d ridden out the Covid wave. Cases trickled into three digits, and, overcome with relief, people emerged from their houses with gusto. From Eating out to Help Out to foreign travel, we gradually returned to normality – albeit a masked and distanced one, with hair at lengths not seen since the 1970s. It was our “patriotic duty” to return to pubs, according to Boris Johnson. We obliged. 

Yet now we’re in the midst of a second wave. Throughout September, case numbers have been rising by the day, setting alarm bells ringing across the country. The government is no longer telling us to Eat Out to Help Out, but harshly warning: “Don’t Kill Granny”.

No beating around the bush from Hancock. Funnily enough we too had been screaming this at our TVs when the government failed to shut UK borders and started an epidemic in care homes by discharging patients from hospitals without testing them.

The statistics indicate that young people are currently the predominant victims of the virus; which makes them the perpetrators of its spread, according to the government. It was in fact Preston council who coined the patronising Granny slogan, after finding that half of new cases were occurring in under 30s. With reports of illegal raves and house parties rocking city streets, the government has not hesitated to point the finger. They’re issuing £10,000 fines for the organisers of such events and have banned meetings of more than 6 people. Especially not your gran.

Yet for all the claims of recklessness directed at young people, I look to Boris Johnson and see a prime minister who has just U-turned on his plan to get 80% of the workforce to get back into the office, despite the fact that many workers had found pragmatic solutions, enabling them to continue working from home.

September brought with it the reopening of schools, rather than the virtual education that had preceded the summer break, despite teaching unions’ warnings. Unlike in Scotland, the government decided not to insist that masks must be worn in schools in England, putting vulnerable people at risk as well as increasing the chance of viral spread.There is instead much talk of ‘bubbles’; a word that misleadingly evokes an image of separation and protection, as if these students, bubbled together, are not then returning to their homes and interacting with other people, with the potential to contract or spread Covid-19. Furthermore, the timing of schools reopening is yet another bizarre symptom of Johnson’s incongruous covid strategy, because Covid cases are higher now than they were when schools were first told to shut.

It is not just schools that are open, but pubs, restaurants, shopping centres and public transport. When we last had this many cases, Boris Johnson had put the country into lockdown. No leaving the house, let alone clothes shopping. The difference being that we don’t have as many deaths now as we did before, as the virus is affecting a different demographic. Now it’s predominantly young people being affected rather than more vulnerable older people.

So are young people to blame?

According to analysis of Public Health England figures, the majority of confirmed cases are aged under 40. Only one fifth of cases are occurring in people aged over 50, drastically less than in spring, when over three quarters of confirmed cases are derived from this age group.

However, rather than representing a rise in reckless youngsters or changes in behaviour patterns, it is important to remember that throughout the first wave, it was difficult to get tested unless symptoms exhibited were severe enough to require hospitalisation. Perhaps it is only now that our still undoubtedly flawed testing scheme is coming to better represent the true case distribution.

Furthermore, it is no surprise that Covid cases are predominantly affecting young people because under 40s make up a large proportion of workers in schools, and lower paid, higher risk jobs.

What we are seeing right now is a second wave, if we base this on confirmed cases. However, if we look at the number of deaths resulting from Covid, we seem to be in relatively calm waters. Perhaps theorising the virus as a wave puts too much faith in the test and trace scheme. We can’t say for certain that infection rates have increased substantially, because the figures are increasing in conjunction with greater access to testing. However, what is certain is that the virus is prevalent. Paradoxically, it is business as usual in the UK.

It appears that the current situation closely resembles the heavily criticised herd immunity strategy. This approach promoted mass infection in order to immunise the nation, without disrupting the economy. Of course, the fatal flaw was clear: the vulnerable were offered no protection from the virus. Perhaps the government sees their biggest mistake as being open about their plan. It is far easier to adopt a laissez-faires policy if you do so tacitly.

Whilst schools, pubs and public transport fill up, the government have intervened with a bizarre six person rule, limiting more than six people from grouping together. Families of 5 can’t see two grandparents or two friends. Unless of course, they are together to conduct one of the plethora of bizarre exemptions. Barrie Bain wrote “if i understand the UK government’s rule of six correctly, it is illegal for seven children to feed ducks but legal for 30 men to shoot ducks”. He is referring to the fact that the rule of six doesn’t apply to hunting, among other things such as baptisms and sport training.

The rules aren’t consistent. They imply that certain circumstances, such as ones that fuel the economy, permit less stringent measures. Just one month ago, we were being told to eat out to help out. Normality was enticing. Yet Professor Heneghan believes Rishi Sunak’s scheme contributed to a rise in Covid cases:

“You go back to August 30, you had about 1,000 detected cases and that then went up to 2,600. It’s interesting to note, that was right around the bank holiday, and the Monday we had Rishi’s Eat Out (scheme). That was a huge success but that actually led, potentially, to some sense of an increase in cases.”

Covid doesn’t distinguish between a house party and a packed coach, a school field and a public park. There is no protective bubble around the workplace; no more than any other place. Yet, as the UK rises from dormancy, cases are rising too.

It is easy to blame the minority of young people attending illegal raves and it is this narrative that has been widely reported. I wonder whether it is partly underrepresentation in politics and the media that has allowed young people to come under a torrent of blame for rising cases. Or, perhaps, it is because young people are not a group that the Conservatives have ever had on side as voters, so aren’t at risk of alienating further with the finger of blame. 

The government is having to tread carefully, and balance economic interests with the protection of public health. Yet their current approach relies on the fact that young people are lower risk, so there is no current necessity for a full scale lockdown. However, the second young people acknowledge and act upon their low risk status, they are lambasted. The government seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it.

It is human nature to be sociable when the risks are low. Johnson himself said that we are a “freedom loving country”.  Whilst this attitude may be perceived as reckless, the pandemic has taught us that ‘reckless’ is circumstantial. Socialising is deemed to be helping the economy if it’s tourism related. Grouping together was being actively encouraged when it comes to returning to the workplace. Yet outside of these incoherent parameters, the fingers are waggling. Covid-19 doesn’t understand the bizarrely drawn lines of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interaction, and nor do I. 

Therefore, when the Prime Minister points his finger at ‘reckless’ young people, I don’t join in. In this pandemic, blame is never clear cut. If you allow students to return to university, you are encouraging the biggest mass migration of people across the country of the whole year. It could have been predicted from a mile away that this would cause a rise in cases, even without any deliberate flouting of the rules by students.

If this is seen to be the right move, how can it also be right to restrict the freedom of those students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time, and then to lay the blame for the spread of the virus and the deaths of their grannies at their doors?  What are the government aiming to achieve by making students the scapegoats for the rise in infections – surely they wouldn’t be trying to deflect attention away from the lamentable failures of their test and trace system. Would they?