Watching Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Valance take to their Downing Street podiums on Wednesday evening felt like returning to the beginning of lockdown. Just like then, Covid-19 cases are rapidly rising, the testing system is a shambles, and the government is searching for someone to blame. With every snap of ‘next slide’ from Whitty’s mouth, the narrative that the government has been building over the last few days – that reckless and ignorant young people are to blame for this spike – was given scientific backing.
Whitty’s graphs are conclusive: young people are behind the recent surge in cases. What is less clear is why. The government is keen to suggest it is down to people not correctly following the rules, which suits them given they can direct blame away from themselves. England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam’s comment that “people have relaxed too much” was quickly followed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, pointing the finger directly at young people who have allegedly broken the rules. Though he didn’t name which specific rules were broken, Hancock did talk about social distancing, leaning into the idea trailed in the media over the past week that teen house parties are at the root of the problem. While we have come to expect such spin from Hancock, it is a little surprising to hear the deputy chief medical officer lay blame at the door of the people, rather than the government.
there’s something quite poetic about official government statements calling out young people for coronavirus cases whilst simultaneously telling them to keep going to schools, pubs and restaurants. ah the sweet smell of inconsistency this morning is truly overwhelming
The theory that young people have wilfully ignored social distancing advice is so easily discredited that it is almost painful. The prime minister told young people that it was their “patriotic duty” to return to pubs upon their reopening on 4 July. So keen was the chancellor for people to return to restaurants that he introduced the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which won applause from the government’s cheerleaders despite the obvious pitfall of bringing people into extremely close contact. The government has just forced young people back into schools even though the teaching unions warned them against it, and is about to force university students back onto campuses despite the weekly incidence of the virus per 100,000 people climbing fastest in the 19-21 age group. The government is blaming young people for its own negligence.
I would argue that the government lost the right to blame Britons for a rise in coronavirus cases the moment Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules at the height of the crisis, without even offering an apology. Though Cummings’s unruly expedition has been consigned to history and laughed off as a bit of banter, we shouldn’t ignore its impact. Funny how easily the misdeeds of older men, including the prime minister’s father, can be shrugged off by the government’s cheerleaders. Yet these are the same people who now chastise young people for being a bit perplexed about the fact they can’t go to the pub with six mates, but can sit in the pub surrounded by twenty groups of six. Can we blame young people for being confused by the constant shifting of goalposts? When only last week the prime minister appeared to break his own rules in addressing a packed meeting of Tory MPs? Let us not forget that this is a man who ended up in intensive care after he boasted to the nation of having “shaken hands with everybody”.
All of this fits nicely into the generational Hunger Games the Tories have spent the last few years peddling. The beginning of this crisis saw government outriders like TheTelegraph’s Allison Pearson preemptively blaming the spread of coronavirus on “Generation Me” (just two months later, Pearson lamented that she was over lockdown). It is unsurprising to see the government pursue its usual culture warfare in response to coronavirus – but it is particularly depressing, as unity is needed right now. Boris Johnson should be celebrating the contribution that young people have made to the country’s effort to combat the pandemic. Instead, he is shaming them in an effort to excuse his own failures. Like so many of his actions during this crisis, it will make matters worse.
Liam Young is the author of Rise, a book about Jeremy Corbyn, young people and the 2017 general election. He has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Vice and is a Labour candidate for the London Assembly elections in May 2021.