From Monday 14th onwards, the number of people allowed to gather indoors or outdoors in England is to be reduced from thirty to six. This decision comes after a surge in Coronavirus infections in young people and the looming threat of universities reopening. A blame culture has emerged with young people at the centre. It appears that the latest government strategy seems to be to play on the stereotype of young people as irresponsible, rule breakers; to use them as scapegoats. With the potential of a second wave of the virus this autumn, have the government decided to plant the seed that young people are to blame before receiving the criticism that a second wave would bring?
Over the past week, coronavirus infections have spiked, nearly doubling to about 3,000 cases on Sunday and Monday. There are also signs that the death rate is on the rise, with 32 reported Covid-19 fatalities on Tuesday. In relation to young people, the latest Public Health England data found 20-29 year olds had the highest coronavirus infection rate, (28 people infected per 100,000) at the end of August. This new trend is obviously alarming and the government are quite right to encourage young people to act with caution to avoid spreading the virus. In Health secretary, Matt Hancock’s words: “Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on.” Boris Johnson shared a similar warning: “My message to students is simple, ‘Please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six, now and when term starts.”
As new and continuing students are due to move back to universities in the upcoming weeks, house parties will be banned under the new “rule of six”. The rule is undoubtedly intended to prevent socialising in large groups of young people as the government have begun to pin disobedience and rule breaking as the cause of the recent spike. Their judgement, though in the interests of public safety, paints young people as flouting restrictions in favour of partying and drinking and ignorant to consequences. Following Matt Hancock’s comments about killing your gran, a YouGov poll came out showing that 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds wanted the pandemic to be taken more seriously. The stereotype created by the government is a generalisation and is not in line with the behaviour of most young people in lockdown who abided by restrictions for the sake of their families safety.
Although parties and large gatherings do occur and are partly responsible for the rise in cases, students and young people are not able shield/ isolate in the same way as older people. Young people need to take public transport to travel to work, whereas older people are more likely to drive a car. At work, students who often work in retail and hospitality are not able to work from home, while older people are. Students and young people are also more likely to live in houses of multiple occupancy making them more exposed to risk.
While schools, pubs, restaurants, hair and beauty salons and workplaces stay open despite rising cases, university education will remain mostly online. For students starting university this September, the new guidelines will have a devastating impact on their experience. Most students will have already payed for halls of residence or a university house before learning that their teaching will be largely online. Are students to pay full fees for accommodation and teaching when they will only receive online lectures? Also, with only small groups of socialising allowed, settling into university will be a problem for many students struggling to find friends. These rules will be hard to accept as there are inconsistencies in the government’s approach. Last month, young people were encouraged to gather in August for the sake of the economy through the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme but now can only socialise at university in groups of six.
Is the introduction of ‘Coronavirus marshals’ in city centres another way to keep a watchful eye on young people? Conservative MP Steve Baker said it would: “turn every public space in Britain into the equivalent of going through airport security”. Though the marshals and the six people rule are not directly intended for young people, the decision does appear to have been propelled by the return of students to universities. Is the tightening of restrictions on young people fair or justified? The government have a duty to take precautions after a spike in cases but are their judgements based on a stereotype?