Since the beginning of September, the government has been announcing stricter restrictions on social gatherings, from limiting them to no more than six people at a time to imposing 10PM curfews on pubs and restaurants. This came after warnings from health officials that cases of COVID-19 in the UK were rising rapidly among 17 to 29-year-olds, and that young people are the group most likely to spread the virus.
In an interview for LBC, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock expressed his concern at the steep rise. “We are concerned about the number of cases we've seen,” he said. “The rise is predominantly among younger people… but young people can infect their grandparents.”
Since then, COVID-19 case modelling has shown that the UK could face 50,000 daily cases by October (dwarfing the current number of around 4,000 daily cases) if the government does not take further action to curb the spread. But recent claims that the sharp uptick in cases specifically across parts of northern England has been largely due to the irresponsible actions of young people has caused a backlash. To what extent should the blame for this rise be placed at the door of Britain’s youth?
The Asymptomatic Generation
Although hospital admissions and deaths across the UK and many parts of Europe have decreased since the initial first waves, cases have been steadily rising. Of all age groups, cases testing positive have been highest amongst those aged 17 to 24 and 25 to 34 years, while groups above the age of 50 have been declining, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Preliminary studies by the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy, suggest that over 80 percent of all people under the age of 20 with coronavirus show no symptoms. This means that potentially a large population of young people around the world are unwittingly carrying and transmitting the disease. Back in June (when lockdowns were starting to be lifted), the WHO created confusion by stating that asymptomatic people are less likely to spread the virus, because they were less likely to be coughing and therefore spreading their infected droplets. This claim was reversed, but Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic, later stated that the actual rates of transmission by asymptomatic people are not yet fully known.
House Parties and Pub Crawls
A good case study is Bolton, a borough of Greater Manchester, where cases are rising fastest (with 90 percent of all cases coming from 18 to 49-year-olds), and stories have surfaced of young people flouting the rules. A local 23-year-old man who returned from holidaying in Ibiza, Spain, after quarantine restrictions were imposed did not self-isolate. Instead, he held a house party, in addition to going out several times, and was later fined £1,000. Another person has been thought to have infected more than 17 other people attending a pub crawl while contagious.
This behaviour isn’t new. Earlier this year, police in Greater Manchester were called out nearly 500 times to shut down gatherings in a four-day period in April. Young people in Leeds have also been urged to stay vigilant after seven £10,000 fines had been issued to rave organisers.
So, are young people to blame? Or are these headline-grabbing stories unrepresentative of something much more complex? A leaked report from Public Health England showed that nine out of ten boroughs in Greater Manchester never actually left the epidemic phase, and that the national lockdown did little to curb the spread of the virus in those areas. Lockdown relaxed in England on the 23rd June 2020, when London’s seven-day case average was 43.7, while the North West of England had a seven-day average of 127.4.
Andy Burnham, the elected mayor of Greater Manchester said in a piece for the Financial Times that COVID-19 in Manchester is “endemic”. He blamed the lifting of lockdown as being timed with what was convenient against London’s transmission rates, as opposed to other areas of the UK. “We were left with a higher level of underlying virus,” he said. “Once summer came and people started to mix again – especially those in their 20s and 30s who generally do not display symptoms of the disease – the virus spread.”
Greater Manchester includes some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in the country, highest rates of underlying health conditions, a large BAME community and high-density housing, which has led to backlash about pointing the finger at young people instead of providing the support those areas needed.
The Blame Game
On the 11th of September, two pubs – The Oddfellows Arms in Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire, and The Angel Inn in Sheffield – banned service to young people, refusing to serve anyone aged between 18 and 25, showing just how compelling this narrative that young people are to blame has become across Northern England.
John Ashton, British public health director and author of Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth and What to Do About It, thinks this narrative is incorrect. “I think it’s outrageous to blame people for doing what we’ve been told to do,” he says. “We were told to go out and shop, shop, shop and eat, eat, eat to keep the economy going. What the government should have been doing is enabling the workforce – which includes young people – to carry on more or less normally. If they’d been regularly tested and adhered to personal hygiene, mask wearing and social distancing, then this wouldn’t be happening.”
Despite the concern about the uptick in cases, there were reports last week that COVID-19 tests were available in only two of England’s top 48 hotspots – including the Greater Manchester boroughs – just as new restrictions prohibiting social gatherings of more than six people have been put into place. Is this the government’s way of covering its tracks for when students go back to university in just a few weeks?
“It’s wrong to pick out the young people and blame them,” says Ashton. “They’ve been let down and I think the big challenge is going to be when the students go back.”