Freedom and injustice in the time of coronavirus

Last week, the majority of COVID-19 restrictions in England were removed, marking the biggest return to “normality” that we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic. However, this does not mean the end of restrictions for everybody, as IF Researcher, Lizzie Simpson, discusses how the new settlement affects younger people differently, and how this relates to intergenerational fairness. 

Vaccine passports

Despite previous assurances from the government that vaccine passports for domestic use were off the table, we have seen yet another U-turn as the government is now encouraging businesses to require an NHS COVID Pass showing proof of vaccination for large scale events such as nightclubs and festivals. Proof of vaccination will also be required for international travel, as people who have not received both doses will still have to quarantine for a full 10 days when arriving in the UK from an amber list country.

Much of the debate on vaccine passports thus far has been focused on civil liberties and the fairness of excluding people who choose not to get vaccinated. But as IF has previously discussed, there is a much bigger intergenerational issue at play here – that young people were the last to be invited for their vaccine. 

Intergenerational inequality

The vaccine was only made available to all adults over the age of 18 on 17 June 2021. Under the current guidance of an 8-week minimum gap between doses and a two-week period after the second jab to gain immunity, young people can expect to be fully protected from COVID-19 on 26th August at the very earliest, but for many it may not be until September. 

As age is the biggest factor in determining how much a person is affected by COVID-19, no one could argue against the logic to leave young people at the back of the queue for vaccinations. But we do have to question why society is being opened up before the vast majority of young people are fully protected against the disease. 

During the earlier stages of the pandemic, the prevailing message from the government was one of collective responsibility – that even though young people had a lower risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, they had a responsibility to take precautions to protect the health of older and more vulnerable people. However, the rhetoric has now become decidedly individualistic, with the Prime Minister urging people to take “personal responsibility” for their own actions.

The clearest example of this is guidance on face masks, which are no longer a legal requirement in most public places. While masks do offer some protection to the wearer, framing this as a decision that only affects the individual is misleading, as masks also help to protect other people, and are most effective when a higher proportion of the community wear them. 

Health risks to younger people

Recent data has shown that the success of the UK’s vaccination rollout has severed the link between COVID-19 cases and deaths. But purely measuring the death rate does not capture the full extent of COVID-19 related health issues. Higher vaccination rates in older people have meant that the average age of people hospitalised from COVID has fallen, as “in the week ending 4 July, there were just 17 people over 85 years old admitted to hospital with Covid in England, compared with 478 aged between 25 and 44”. 

It is also too early to predict the full effects of long Covid: while it is estimated that only 1-2% of people in their 20s go on to develop long Covid, this could result in significant numbers of young people becoming seriously unwell, with long-term damage to their health. 

The end of lockdown restrictions also has implications for younger people’s mental health. It is easy to stereotype all young people as desperate to return to nightclubs and parties, but this is not the reality, as recent survey data found that 42% of 16-29-year-olds were very or somewhat worried about the plan to end COVID-19 rules in England.

The “pingdemic” affecting jobs and health

There is also the issue of increasing numbers of people being told to self-isolate by the NHS app, with some forecasts predicting that after restrictions end, we could see up to 2 million COVID-19 cases with a further 10 million people having to isolate. 

From the 16th August 2021 onwards, there will no longer be a legal requirement to self-isolate for those who have been double vaccinated, or for people under the age of 18. As such, the only group who will still have to isolate will be people who have yet to receive their second jab, a group comprised mostly of the youngest adults. This is broadly the same group who have experienced university by Zoom, had the very start of their careers derailed, or were on the receiving end of the government’s capricious results algorithm last summer.

This is especially unjust considering that many of the sectors which have been shut for the longest, such as events and hospitality, employ a higher proportion of younger people. This creates a situation where vaccinated older people will be being served by the unvaccinated young, putting these young people at higher risk of catching COVID-19 or having to self-isolate. 

Many younger people in these sectors are also on insecure or zero-hours contracts and aren’t eligible for statutory sick pay, so they may also lose out financially from any periods of missed work due to isolation. Younger people are also more likely to live in flats and house shares that are overcrowded and don’t have a garden, which makes self-isolating much harder. 

Young people’s lives on hold

The decision to open up society before everyone has been offered the chance to be double vaccinated puts young people in a difficult position. They can either join in with the “Freedom Day” celebrations, and risk becoming ill from COVID-19, spreading it to other people, or having to self-isolate. Or they can continue to stay at home and socially distance over the summer until they have received both jabs, while watching older, double vaccinated people make the most of their freedom.  

Young people have put their lives on hold for nearly 18 months to protect older and more vulnerable people. They have suffered economic hardship and seen huge disruption to their careers, education, living situations, social lives, and mental health. And they have done so largely without complaint, and patiently waited until last to receive their vaccines. But now that the situation is reversed and younger people are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, the government has removed the majority of restrictions and left young people to get on with it. 

Whether this is intentional or not, this sends a message that the government considers the economy, and the liberties and mental health of the population worth sacrificing to protect the health of older generations, but not for younger generations. It is difficult not to see this as age discrimination, and risks deepening intergenerational injustice. 

Recognising the sacrifice

Instead of overlooking younger generations, we should be repaying them for the sacrifices they have made throughout the pandemic by continuing to take precautions to protect them until people of all ages have had the chance to be fully immunised against COVID-19, as well as providing the economic and mental health support needed to help younger people recover from the disruption to their lives. 

It cannot truly be “Freedom Day” until we are all free. And that day will not come until younger people are double-jabbed and able to join in with the celebrations.

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Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash