OPINION
08/09/2020 12:11 BST | Updated 09/09/2020 08:23 BST

Don’t Blame Young People For Rising Covid Cases. We Are Only Doing What We’re Told

My generation has more than shouldered its burden in this pandemic. To suggest we haven’t done our bit is not only condescending – it’s factually incorrect.

The push notifications are back. 

Like many other news-conscious millennials, this summer I had to turn off a number of Twitter alerts I had from different media outlets. As well as dealing with the genuine concern about the health and wellbeing of my family and friends, my anxiety levels were going through the roof every time my phone buzzed.

The ‘first wave’ of coronavirus apparently ended, society reopened and young, healthy people like me were actively encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’ and to save the economy by going into the office and having a drink after. Normality (sort of) returned, and the push notifications stopped.

But now they’re back.

When my phone buzzed again on Sunday evening, with news that the number of cases of Covid-19 had increased to levels the UK hadn’t seen since May, I know I was not alone in experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

This feeling only deepened when I saw a news clip of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, forcefully telling us that “young people can infect their grandparents”. Worse yet, a front-page headline glared out at me shortly after, with the ominous threat of “Don’t kill granny with virus”. My despair pretty swiftly turned to anger.

The overwhelming majority of young people had followed the guidelines to the word, all while having every aspect of their lives completely upended.

It’s not even that what Hancock said is factually wrong, it was the condescending tone of the intervention that infuriated me the most. He did not, for example, note that the overwhelming majority of young people had followed the guidelines to the word, including not seeing their grandparents or family members for months, all while having every aspect of their lives completely upended. Not only did he not even acknowledge that young people contracting Covid-19 is in itself a really bad thing, he didn’t even extend to us his wishes for a speedy recovery from a virus that has literally changed all of our world.

The implication that young people have been collectively irresponsible or not ‘done our bit’ is sorely misplaced. We are more likely to have been put on furlough or lost our jobs – if we were lucky enough one in the first place, We are more likely to have had to work from home with several others all squeezed into a too small flat. We are much more likely to have suffered from poor mental health over the last few months. And while it might have escaped Hancock’s notice that young people from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds have been disproportionately suffering with their mental health, it is not something that has escaped the notice of younger generations hearing of their friends’ difficulties. 

So, what were young people supposed to do? Are we meant to go back to work – as per the Prime Minister’s wishes – or stay away and potentially losing our income, in case we pass the virus to the grandparents we’ve not seen for half a year, or in other cases care for and live with? Are we meant to return to school or university – as the Education Secretary insisted must happen – or miss more months of education, widening the gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off, putting our futures on hold? Are we not supposed to return to gyms, shops, public transport or parks to grab a piece of normality we were told it was safe to do, despite our suspicions it was purely for economic reasons?

Perhaps the least convincing part of this whole narrative the government is trying to pursue is that a rise in cases of Covid-19 amongst young generations is, somehow, a surprise. When schools, colleges and universities reopened, were we assuming there would be no rise in cases in students living in cramped halls and homes in new cities? When pubs and restaurants reopened, were we assuming there would be no rise in cases amongst young people, who tend to work in hospitality?

We are taking this seriously, and all we ask is that Matt Hancock and this government take us seriously in return.

What we need from the government is a serious, two-way dialogue. A no holds barred, UK-wide conversation with younger generations about what’s next and, perhaps most importantly of all, there must be an opportunity for young people to question ministers themselves. Let’s use this moment as an opportunity to create a proper formal route for ministers to be held to account by those who will have to live with the consequences of this pandemic for the longest. 

The charity I chair, The British Youth Council, have been calling for a youth press conference for months. While it might be late in finally holding one, as many other governments have done, it is never too late to meaningfully engage young people, given this pandemic has already altered our futures.

Young people are acutely aware of the risks of the pandemic – and its consequences – pose for all of our lives. We are doing our part, and shouldering our burden of the economic downturn. We are taking this seriously, and all we ask is that Matt Hancock and this government take us seriously in return.

Because, as I have just read on my phone, the World Health Organisation believes, a second wave is coming. I hope our Government treat younger generations more seriously than they did during the first.

Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson is chair of the British Youth Council. Follow her on Twitter at @bycchair.