“I was thinking this morning that it is a bit like a race,” Sajid Javid said last Wednesday when commenting on Britain’s vaccine rollout. “The older adults have done their bit. Now we need them to help us start winning in that race. We have passed the baton to younger people, and are saying: ‘Please help us.’”
It seems the health secretary would have you believe young people are now solely responsible for the consequences of his government’s pandemic response. Forget “freedom day” or the delayed India travel ban that helped the Delta variant gets its claws into this country. Now it seems the real culpability lies with a vaccine-hesitant generation that just won’t play its part.
Boris Johnson is reportedly “raging” at our vaccine uptake rates. An editorial in the Times last month was more explicit still, speaking of “the shameful reluctance of young people to follow the older generation in getting vaccinated”.
The Sunday Telegraph’s front page this weekend reported that shopping vouchers are to be given out, in time for the start of the new academic year, “to boost youth jabs”. We are encouraged to focus on the fact “just” 67% of under-29s have had a first dose, supposedly forcing the government to offer bribes to increase vaccination levels.
But this is a classic conjuror’s misdirection. The question we should be asking is: what is the government trying to distract our attention from with this contrived controversy over supposedly feckless young people?
It is true that young people are less enthusiastic to get vaccinated than the adult population as a whole: one in eight under-30s in recent Office for National Statistics data report hesitancy, compared with more than the one in 25 of the general adult population who feel the same.
Given the diminishing risk to our lives that the virus poses, this hesitancy is to be expected. Yet the overwhelming majority of young people do want to get jabbed. The ONS figure obscures the fact two-thirds of young adults have had a single dose – making them the most vaccinated of their age group in the world.
Bear in mind that, for 16 months, this generation has complied with restrictions that were necessary in order to protect people largely other than their age group. From exam-grading mayhem and the university admissions fiasco to the disproportionately high economic impact on the young, my generation has proved itself prepared to play its part in the necessary social solidarity.
As the NHS put it, there was an “encouraging Glastonbury-style rush” when online bookings began for over-18s jabs, with long queues at walk-in centres across England.
The Reddit online discussion forum, GetJabbed, has become the chief tool for many people looking for a quicker way to get a second dose (at four-week intervals for Pfizer, say, as opposed to the eight-week wait recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation).
The community works by publicising walk-in centres, with users logging their own good fortune in order to alert others. The site is full of stories of desperate young people visiting multiple centres. One user, a young woman who wanted to travel to see her terminally ill grandfather and needed to be double dosed to do so, was among those successful. Her partner praised the site: “Actually managing to get a dose after many rejections specifically from this site is beyond awesome.”
I got my second dose this way, as have many friends. But not everyone gets lucky. A walk-in open one day may be overwhelmed and close the next, while those young people who received the Moderna vaccine first time round – a comparative rarity – face added difficulty.
True, the number of vaccines administered has been falling. But many more would have had their second dose had the government been more flexible with the eight-week gap (the European Medicines Agency and US Centers for Disease Control recommend the shorter 21-day interval between Pfizer jabs).
Moreover, instead of focusing so much energy on scapegoating younger citizens, we should instead perhaps be thinking about by far the most pressing aspect of the fight against Covid: the urgent need to vaccinate the people of poorer nations, both to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and to suppress the emergence of new variants.
Only 0.3% of doses have been administered in low-income countries. After Canada, the UK has more spare doses per head of the population than any country in the world. We’ve purchased enough to fully vaccinate our population four times over. This is the real scandal: Britain has only just started sending this surplus to the territories where these doses are urgently needed.
Merely a tiny fraction of the UK’s purchased doses – 5m– is so far being donated to Covax, the worldwide vaccine sharing system.
It is a question of priorities. When those such as the former M&S chairman and Conservative peer Stuart Rose advocate paying young people £250 to be vaccinated, has it occurred to them that they might be asking the wrong question? The suggested sum could fully vaccinate dozens of healthcare workers in low-income countries, where just 1.1% of people have received at least one dose.
This is a question of basic human decency, but it is in our interest too: if we shirk the task, a vaccine-resistant variant may emerge and land everybody – young and old – back at square one. Already, scientists are concerned about the Lambda variant that is raging through South America. We have to act fast.
So don’t focus on the supposedly errant young. Focus on humanity as a whole, the global mission to vaccinate everyone and the millions of deaths that the west has the power to prevent right now.
Lara Spirit is a reporter at Tortoise Media, and a former director of Vote For Your Future