With the coronavirus crisis set to worsen over the next few months, the Conservative government will attempt to exonerate itself for failing to provide an effective Test and Trace system, a comprehensive border policy and basic mitigations, such as masks and ventilation in schools, by pursuing a divide and rule strategy. This will involve young people being blamed for coronavirus outbreaks in order to shore up support from its older supporters.
In doing so, the government will rely on the same pseudoscientific strategy it has throughout the pandemic: ‘focused protection’. Fringe scientists from the Great Barrington Declaration group argue that the best pandemic strategy is to prioritise protective measures for the elderly, such as shielding and vaccines, while allowing the virus to circulate at very high rates among the young, who they claim will be able to achieve ‘herd immunity’.
Despite the government’s unwavering support, the strategy has been overwhelmingly condemned by the wider scientific community. Focused protection fails for two reasons: first, there is no proof antibodies acquired through natural infection last for very long; and second, allowing virus mutation at very high rates among the unprotected young ultimately still endangers older people, even if they are vaccinated.
As Dr Rupert Beale explains in a piece for the London Review of Books, “Every time someone is infected, there is a tiny chance of such a set of mutations occurring. It’s been compared to buying the virus a lottery ticket. Winning the lottery isn’t lucky if you can buy thirty million tickets.”
Worryingly, this is the scenario playing out right now in the UK. In a recent Independent SAGE briefing, Professor Christina Pagel noted that those categorised as most vulnerable – who received their second jabs two or three months ago – are now in a period where their antibodies are declining, at the same time that the more vaccine-resistant Delta, or ‘India’, variant is gaining dominance.
Speaking to Novara Media, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist, argues that the government’s dogged pursuit of the focused protection strategy has “scuppered the vaccine programme.” Focused protection is “a policy that has been cast in terms of empathy, protecting the vulnerable and protecting people’s livelihoods,” explains Gurdasani. But in practice, it privileges those who can more easily limit their exposure to the virus. Younger, essential frontline workers, often from minority backgrounds, have suffered a disproportionately heavy toll. As The Lancet notes, they are often the most exposed and take on a great deal more “occupational risk” than most.
Children have also suffered disproportionately. While the government was widely praised when it first announced its vaccine schedule and its intention to prioritise the most vulnerable and elderly – it is, of course, intuitive to vaccinate those most likely to die first – in doing so, it neglected children who are vulnerable to the virus. In opening schools without adequate mitigation (such as masks and ventilation), the government has offered up children, teachers, and parents as the ‘shock troops’ of the pandemic, with Public Health England stating that case rates are highest among schoolchildren. This has had disastrous consequences, with the ONS estimating that 43,000 children are now living with long Covid. What’s more, the possible longer-term effects of the virus on younger people include “dysfunction in the organs” and “scarring in hearts, lungs and kidneys”.
In this context, there is a strong argument for vaccinating young people, who have a higher risk of exposure to the virus, before some older people, as has been done in Israel. In the medium to long term, focusing on these ‘mixers’, counterintuitively, reduces overall mortality, even among the vulnerable. As mathematical biologist Julia Gog argues, the “absolute worse strategy” is to “vaccinate all of the vulnerable and none of the ‘mixers’,” both because it creates the ideal conditions for mutation, and because the one trip a vulnerable person may be compelled to make – to the supermarket – is where mixing happens.
So, given that this is the “absolute worst strategy”, why are the Conservatives still pursuing focused protection? Simply put, for the Tories, the primary goal is retaining political power, not controlling the pandemic – and to do so they are prepared to stir up a climate of fear across generations.
Already, tabloids read mostly by older people are scaremongering about the young as potential hosts of vaccine-resistant mutations; while younger people fear catching the much more severe Delta variant without having been offered both doses of the vaccine. There is also the potential of mutual resentment simmering across generations this summer, stoked, for example, by Tony Blair’s demand that those who have had both vaccines should be granted greater freedoms – essentially meaning younger people would be penalised for not having been vaccinated.
Last summer, the Conservatives blamed young people visiting beaches and parks for spreading the virus, despite the vast majority complying with the rules – “Don’t kill your gran”, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted. This summer and autumn, with people on different vaccine statuses, the right-wing press and the government will try to immunise older people from blame – even though you can still transmit the virus post-vaccination. If even one young person with the Delta variant or Nepal variant fails to isolate – because they needed to go to work to survive, without proper sick pay or support – the tabloids will demonise them as ‘Covidiots’, or whip up hysteria about ‘missing’ individuals, as was the case with the “mystery person” person with the Manaus variant who had been isolating at home all along.
Already, the ‘boomer’ generation’s self-mythology insists that they brought themselves up by the bootstraps. The government is keen to play into this narrative and is frantically trying to cement its bond with these older voters by pandering to their self-aggrandisement. Of course, this is a tactic that works: the Tories received a polling boost from voters over 55, having effusively praised them for taking the vaccine at “phenomenally high” rates – while at the same time criticising younger people and minorities, inaccurately, for slow take-up in a bid to stir up fear and distrust. The government isn’t stupid; it knows creating this culture of anxiety is easier to do with the older generation, who are more vulnerable and anxiously waiting for booster jabs to arrive in the autumn to protect them from new variants.
When one is fearful, it is often easier to assume the worst in others. Pseudoscientific theories such as focused protection are social belief systems that prey on this tendency. Implied in the theory is the assumption that because the young are less likely to die they surely must be taking more risks: a libertarian, ‘live free or die young’ ethos.
Of course, this is broadly not true. Speaking to Novara Media, Safiah Ngah, a member of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, says that, among the younger people in the group there is not resentment, but shared concern. Like older people, she explains, “we also want to see our families on a regular basis without the mutual anxiety and responsibility incurred by spending time together at close proximity.”
Ngah, who lost her father Zahari, a clinical psychotherapist who worked with refugees and torture victims, to Covid-19 in February, says that he would want younger and older people to come together “with sensitivity” for each other’s situations. And while most people will respond with this sensitivity, fear makes for a febrile ground for divide and rule politics.
To resist this, we must be willing to talk about the uses and abuses of science and pressure the government to follow real research, not fringe lobbyists. When SAGE recommended a vaccine schedule by age, they did not give the government carte blanche to open all the taps of infection, from schools to airports, in the service of its own neoliberal economic ideology.
Zero Covid countries which have locked down early and run effective Test and Trace systems have shown that there is no trade-off between older and younger lives. Their lockdowns have been far shorter. The cross-generational mutual aid networks created in the absence of sufficient government support throughout the pandemic demonstrates the kind of intergenerational solidarity necessary to fix our deeply flawed pandemic strategy.
Rather than scapegoating the young, who are most exposed, we need to support them with proper sick pay and support for isolation. Ultimately, we should be drawing on the hope – not the fear – that all these months of care and concern between generations has demonstrated and inspired.
Ameya Tripathi is a writer and PhD candidate at Columbia University.