The UK might not be crumbling under a second wave of coronavirus cases (not yet anyway), but it is beyond doubt that we are seeing a spike. Localised lockdowns have occurred in areas like Greater Manchester, Greater Glasgow, and most recently the North East of England. But why are cases on the rise? Besides the general relaxing of lockdown measures introduced at the start of the pandemic, an increasingly popular narrative is that young people are to blame for the new rise in cases. Preston Council introduced a “don’t kill granny” campaign specifically to target younger people with COVID-19, and everyone from politicians to scientists are coming after younger people’s unwavering love of socialising and house parties as the scapegoat for the new surge in cases.
Now don’t get me wrong, some young people are blatantly disregarding the rules. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has recently issued a stark warning to anyone who thinks the law doesn’t apply to them. They are, and should be punished in the same way as anyone else who decides they are above the needs of the many. But the governments of the UK, obsessed with returning to an economically viable ‘normality’ as soon as possible, are blinded to a more salient reason behind the rise in cases amongst young people. Something that has nothing to do with their social lives or to a large extent is even really their choice.
COVID-19 thrives in the most densely populated areas – cities, the hubs of socio-economic activity up and down the UK. Travel to city centres is encouraged as a way to contribute to the economy without even having to think about it; you take the train, buy a meal deal, go out for a coffee or drink with friends, and so on. Everything from advertisements to job opportunities encourages you to actively engage in urban life, which involves spending money. There is more to it than this, but the city centre as the heart for economic growth is a model that the government is keen to protect. There have been well-publicised warnings of ‘ghost towns’ if office workers and others who regularly travel to and from city centres do not return to the way things were before.
There are two obvious things to note here. First of all, if a city centre-focused model for local economic activity cannot survive people taking the necessary steps to protect themselves and their loved ones, then perhaps it is a model doomed to fail and we should already be looking for alternatives. The other is that commuting to and from urban centres, even if just on foot, automatically favours the most mobile, able-bodied members of society – overwhelmingly, the younger population. In the current climate, this also means that key workers in supermarkets, pharmacies and other services – who cannot work from home – are most likely going to be young. A report from the Department of Work and Pensions indicates that hospitality and retail employ a higher proportion of 18-24 year olds than any other sectors – sectors that, even at the height of the pandemic, continued to operate in some fashion. They continued to depend on their workers using public transport, visiting other places in the city centre, and generally exposing themselves to the greatest risks short of being on the frontlines. Compare this to industries that rely more heavily on desk-based work – and that can therefore be done at home – the proportion of 18-24 year olds in these sectors suddenly plummets.
The rise in COVID-19 cases amongst the young is not solely, or even largely, the result of a flagrant disregard for others. This claim demonises young people whose futures have already been damaged by a decade of Conservative leadership. To suggest that they just don’t care, and see the virus as nothing to be concerned about, blatantly ignores the fact that the economic system coerces the young to come into contact with more people in public settings, posing a greater risk to themselves and to others. You can’t exactly work at a local coffee shop from home, or provide prescriptions from the comfort of your living room. Generally, older workers in industries such as finance or public administration need not even leave the house to make a living.
There are also reasons asides employment to why urban centres draw young people in. Students up and down the UK have returned to or just started university, and many higher education centres are located slap bang in the middle of their respective cities (indeed, for places such as Edinburgh or Leeds, the university is very much embedded into the city centre itself, sprawling out beyond the confines of a regular campus). The travel, change and necessary time spent with new people all increase the risk of catching COVID-19, but you couldn’t call going to university “irresponsible.”
Furthermore, young doctors and nurses who were in the middle of their studies when the pandemic broke out dropped their textbooks and were drafted into the main assault on coronavirus. Many more students and graduates work in care homes, pharmacies and other frontline services that are required to keep operating even in the darkest of days. For officials to have the audacity to lay blame at their feet shows a disgusting lack of tact, and lacklustre awareness of how economic activity organises itself on a localised scale.
It is unlikely that the government will even remotely care what young people think. These are, after all, the Conservatives. We might be in the middle of a pandemic, but if anyone thinks that the blood has stopped boiling after a betrayal on tuition fees, Brexit, and generally casting them aside in favour of older (and generally wealthier) supporters, they have another thing coming. Jeremy Corbyn’s hey-day of popularity around 2017 was built on the support of younger voters, who justifiably felt that this is a government that won’t listen to them. Boris Johnson is quite happy to let his friends go on their weekly grouse hunts, but when it comes to supporting those who kept the country running when the wheels could have very easily stopped turning, he is an empty, callous shell of a leader. The echoes from clapping for the NHS dissipated long ago, and the government quite clearly is more prepared to use 18-24 year olds as convenient scapegoats instead of providing the support needed to minimise risk to themselves and others.
In the short term, the government and their scientific advisors need to stop throwing blame in the direction of young people – blame is a stalling tactic, and it helps nobody. The advice that applies to one age group surely applies to all. Longer-term, the government needs to seriously think about how the economy encourages younger workers to be constantly on the move and in public-facing roles, a situation fostered by everything from economic inequality to the focus of apprenticeship schemes. The younger generation are not all the reckless, carefree party animals you will hear some accusing them of being. They, like everyone else, are doing what they need to in order to stay safe.
Words by James Hanton
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