ECONOMY

Why England’s newfound pandemic freedom is alarming for young people

Coronavirus pandemic updates

Disappointment. This was the feeling I had after queueing at a pop-up jab tent in Greenwich on the hottest day of the year, only to be turned away.

The reason, I was told by a cheerful official, was that it had only been seven weeks since my first vaccination, not the requisite eight stipulated by official guidelines. “It’s in your best interests,” she said, reassuringly, adding that if I snuck back at the end of the day there might be spares.

The message was confusing, especially as it appeared that every government minister on the television that weekend was advising people in my age group to be proactive and seek out jabs at the earliest opportunity.

As England’s economy reopened fully last Monday amid scenes of people milling around in the sun, looking like not much had changed, it dawned on me that a fundamental shift was taking place. Society’s most vulnerable members, where the virus is concerned, were no longer necessarily the elderly but the unjabbed — who are mostly the young.

With new case numbers almost back at their January peak and led by transmission in the under-30s, many of my generation are wondering if the new government strategy, tantamount to herd immunity for our cohort, is really serving our best interests. If abandoning England’s last remaining Covid restrictions is one big policy experiment, then perhaps young people are the prize guinea pigs.

“The fundamental difference with this wave is that lockdown won’t break the peak — but herd immunity,” Neil Ferguson, leading epidemiologist and government adviser told the BBC.

Around 95 per cent of England’s over-50s are now fully vaccinated, but for the under-30s it drops to around two thirds. Hospital admissions rates for those with Covid are now higher for 25- to 44-year-olds than for those between 45 and 75, suggesting a change in risk distribution.

Whitehall’s mixed messaging on vaccines has fed confusion around what “acting responsibly” means for younger people like myself, with some wondering whether to wait the full eight weeks for their second jab, as official guidelines advise, or seek out places that offer them sooner.

Others are not sure whether to take them at all. The rate of vaccine hesitancy among 18- to 25-year-olds is now double that of the general population, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics. As of week ending July 18, only 64.4 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds — who were among the last to be offered the vaccine — have received a first dose.

“Come on folks, you won’t regret it, it’s the right thing to do,” implored the prime minister in his national address last week. Other politicians have berated the young for “the tendency to think you are invincible”, as one said in a television interview. He went on to tell them to “protect people older than you”, as if this generation has not been doing that since March 2020 at a cost to our own futures. One newspaper column blamed young adults for “knocking government strategy off course”.

Not all my peers are hesitant. “The fact that Long Covid is real and so many of us are unprotected worries me,” says one friend in her mid 30s. According to Ferguson, as many as one in four symptomatic cases of Covid lead to Long Covid, a lingering and debilitating illness, which does not discriminate between young and old.

As nightclubs, bars and music festivals reopen — all with superspreader potential — public opprobrium toward the young and their capacity to lead us into the next Covid peak could pick up.

In the UK there are currently almost 50,000 new cases a day which could soon double. Ferguson predicts reaching 100,000 is inevitable and 1,000 hospitalisations a day is “certain”.

Elsewhere creative campaigns are being launched to incentivise jab uptake. French authorities have sought to motivate 12- to 30-years-olds by asking them to upload content showing the benefits of vaccination on social media. In Greece, they are offering cash and mobile data. In the US they are offering jabs to teens.

In light of this, perhaps there is more to be done in supporting the members of the herd likely to take the greatest hit. In the meantime, I intend to return to my local vaccination tent.

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