Opinion

Second wave UK: “Why blaming young people for the rise in coronavirus cases is so problematic”

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Lauren Geall
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Young people wearing face masks to protect from coronavirus

For months, the government has been encouraging us to eat out, go to the pub and see our friends – so why are young people being blamed now coronavirus cases are on the rise?

Over the last couple of days, the UK has seen a sharp rise in the number of daily coronavirus cases being recorded. On Sunday 6 September alone, there were 2,988 new confirmed cases – a 65% increase on the previous day. Basically, things aren’t looking good.

According to Public Health England’s weekly surveillance reports, which break down the number of coronavirus cases across the UK into groups based on age, sex and ethnicity, the rise in cases is most pronounced among young people – the rate of positive cases is growing fastest among people in the 20-29 and 10-19 age groups.

Reflecting on the rise in cases on BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat earlier this week, the health secretary Matt Hancock warned that the UK could face a second wave of coronavirus if young people don’t follow social distancing rules. 

“The numbers have been going up. And we’ve seen in other countries where this leads, and that is not a good place,” he said, pointing to France and Spain as an example of “where that second wave started largely among young people, it then spreads.”

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Hancock continued: “Now we’re seeing a sharp rise in the number of people in hospital and the number of people who are dying in those countries. That hasn’t happened here yet. And if people follow social distancing rules, then we can stop that from happening here.”

The rise in cases is, of course, a worrying trend. At a time when many young people are heading to university for the first time or returning to the office after months of working from home, the risk of those positive cases leading to even more infections down the road is a very real one. But there’s also something hugely problematic with the government’s suggestion that, if we do see a second wave, young people are solely to blame.

Why? Because for a while now, the government has been telling us to ‘get back to normal’ wherever possible, so suggesting that the rise is solely down to young people not following the rules is simply unfair.   

Two young women wearing masks
The government has been telling us all to 'get back to normal' for some time now, so suggesting that young people breaking the rules are solely to blame for the rise in coronavirus cases doesn't make a lot of sense.

The ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme is just one example of the way in which the messaging around coronavirus has changed since the beginning of the pandemic – eating out at restaurants, meeting (a small group of) friends at the pub and going shopping have all been actively encouraged since lockdown started easing. That’s fine – the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme has been a great success for many restaurants – but no matter how ‘cautious’ we all were when doing these activities, there was always going to be a risk of Covid-19 being transmitted as a result. 

There’s also the fact that, as a group, young people make up a solid proportion of the people working in customer-facing roles such as waiters, shop assistants and supermarket workers – especially during the summer months when many students are home from university and looking to earn some money. 

 It goes without saying that there will have been some young people who have flouted the rules, in the same way that people of any age will have too (cast your mind back to Dominic Cummings’ drive across the country and those images of thousands of people at the beach, for example)  – but most of us have just been doing our best to live our lives within the parameters we’ve been given. All of this, of course, at a time when so many young people have had much of their hope for the future snatched from beneath them, whether because of the recession, messed up exam results or a lack of job opportunity.

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Whether or not we are facing a potential second wave of coronavirus infections, it’s clear that the cause is not as simple as one group of people not following the rules – especially when those rules have often been so mixed and confusing. 

Blaming young people for doing exactly what the government has encouraged them to do is not OK, especially because there are many more factors at play here. Indeed, if the government really does want to avoid a second wave, they need to wake up and realise that. Quickly.

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