Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.
The social compact is crumbling: for the first time since the 1960s young people are challenging the fundamental tenets that hold society together. This is not the sneering anarchy of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s or the solipsistic hedonism of the New Romantics in the 1980s, but the start of a new revolution as young people come to understand the scale of their betrayal by government and the media.
Having complied with lockdown, infantilised by their return to childhood bedrooms and enforced celibacy for six months, they accepted their loss of income from summer jobs, the imposition of travel restrictions and even the boredom and banality of online learning in the absence of lectures and seminars.
School leavers had the additional stress of Centre Assessed Grades and the application of a flawed algorithm, followed by a scramble for university places. In the blame-game which followed, no one has taken responsibility for this fiasco, there is no sign of an official enquiry and it is far from clear how exams will run next year.
During lockdown, altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected prescriptions, and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding. Many were inspired by the example of Captain (now Sir)co Tom Moore to raise funds for the NHS (usually the Government’s responsibility). They stayed away from beloved grandparents in the knowledge that transmitting the virus to the elderly could have fatal consequences.
Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating grit, resilience and kindness, young people are now being vilified. Students are being blamed for the return of Covid-19 – even though viral transmission rates rose dramatically in the weeks before schools and universities re-opened. The media is awash with sanctimonious reports of illegal raves, student house parties and the collapse of social distancing.
Now that universities have re-opened, students are blamed for local spikes in transmissions. The response has been to lock down halls of residence and cancel lectures, face-to-face teaching, and social gatherings. After months of subservience to the will of the state, young people are beginning to question the lazy rhetoric that we are all in this together, we must follow the science and Covid-19 kills indiscriminately.
Rishi Sunak has exhorted us to face up to our fears. He is right. We now know far more about this virus than we did in March. Public awareness of the risks, and how to navigate them, is also much greater. The truth is that the virus has revealed fault lines in society between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those with access to gardens and those who must make do with the local park. The science of epidemiology has proved as reliable as Jeremy Corbyn’s memory of being present, but not involved, in laying a wreath to honour members of the Black September terror group.
What we do know for certain is that this virus discriminates by race, weight, age, and overall health – it is racist, fattist, gerontophobe and Darwinian. Statistically, young people are relatively unaffected by Covid-19: the susceptibility of individuals under the age of 25 to the disease is less than half that of adults aged over 25. Not only are young people less likely to succumb to the illness, they have a lower propensity to show clinical symptoms when they do contract the coronavirus.
Neither is it clear whether spikes in cases among the young inevitably lead to increased deaths among the older demographic. Yet it is the young who are being told to self-isolate in student halls across the country, even after they have tested negative. Grinch-like finger-wagging authorities threaten to cancel Christmas unless students comply with increasingly draconian restrictions.Predictably, the laboratory for these policies is north of the border: where Scotland leads, England inevitably follows.
It is about time we had an honest conversation about segmenting the population with more targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable. Young people should be actively encouraged to get on with life, build up some herd immunity and bolster our limping economy. Young people are the entrepreneurs, pacesetters, and problem solvers of the future – they will be vital to our recovery from this crisis.
But the consequences of not releasing this potential soon enough could be catastrophic. The impact of lockdown on mental health, especially among adolescents and young people, has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the removal of support networks and the cancellation of summer activities has led to an increase in the number of referrals for depression, self-harming and suicide.
In times of economic crisis, it is young people, with less experience, who are the first to be let go. Record numbers of young people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the economic impact of the virus on young people’s prospects is already starting to show.
Our response to Covid-19 could create a lost generation destined for long-term unemployment and mental health problems. It is depressing that those most vulnerable, the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are still at risk.
What is unnecessary, and indeed immoral, is to disrupt the lives of young people who could be released from the strictures of the Coronavirus Act. We need to stop berating the young for pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what is allowed and setting themselves free. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Let the young work and play, and even, dare I say, meet in groups of seven at their local Wetherspoons, while the rest of society adjusts to learning to live with the virus.