Boris Johnson is ‘raging’ at young people over the vaccine uptake – but this is a mess of his own making

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Two people hug in the middle of the dancefloor at Egg London on ‘freedom day’ (Getty)
Two people hug in the middle of the dancefloor at Egg London on ‘freedom day’ (Getty)

He’s a funny fellow, Boris Johnson, isn’t he? He relaxes “lockdown” too rapidly and too soon – I’m talking about the last two relaxations at least – and then starts “raging”, as the newspapers report, because not enough young folk have gotten round to having a jab, let alone getting double dosed.

They’re busy people, this age group, and they’ve got many demands on their time. They’ve also been a bit freaked out, I should think, by the reports of very rare side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine. So the authorities have given them more choice in the matter of which vaccine to take (so much for a silent conspiracy to inflict harm, by the way).

But, basically, over these past weeks, young people have been getting on with doing their duty to themselves and to their friends and family (especially older members), and getting inoculated. Not so long ago they were being praised as a sensible and conscientious generation. Now they enrage the prime minister so much he wants to make them show vaccine passports to get into nightclubs or go to university lectures. Such harsh measures might have become necessary at some point, but the vaccination programme was proceeding well, despite the efforts of the anti-vaxxers.

Yet the fact is that the prime minister, in his rush to please his boss (The Telegraph), ended most of the last public health precautions before the vaccination programme was practically complete. And now he is blaming the young for his own misjudgements. Typical.

So, surprise, surprise, the students and (over-18s) teenagers are being blamed by the government for the relatively low uptake among the under-30s, as if a whole cohort wanted to just pull the bed clothes over their heads and have some more kip rather than toddle down to the vaccination centre.

Watch: Daily politics briefing: July 27

What’s changed, I might respectfully suggest, is that on 19 July, on the over-hyped so-called “freedom day”, the government removed the last collective incentives younger people had to get herd immunity over the line and make it safe for the government to unlock the night economy, and let people buy their drinks at the bar, as God and nature intended. Now there is both no collective incentive to do so, nor much individual incentive, because Covid doesn’t affect the young as badly (though complications and long Covid may last a lifetime).

The government has also created a false “post-Covid” atmosphere, as people assume that if restrictions are lifted then the pandemic must be almost over – hence the frustrations over the “pingdemic” and self-isolation. When health secretary Sajid Javid said people who were being cautious and still observing social distancing and wearing face masks were “cowering in fear”, he betrayed the government’s true beliefs and policy intentions.

The truth is that the young are being made to bear the burden of getting to the end of this pandemic far too soon anyway, when case numbers are still high and, though falling now, may escalate again when the schools reassemble in a few weeks. They are the ones now going into hospital and intensive care – and are being blamed for their own sickness by a prime minister trying to save his own well-upholstered backside. It’s as cynical a ploy as any that he has perpetrated on the people.

Given where we are, though, through Johnson’s latest gamble, we do now need to urgently speed up vaccinations. I would start with some nice incentives before hitting the kids with penalties. What is needed is an incentive to get jabbed that is not so large as to undermine present and future vaccination campaigns (by accidentally creating an incentive to wait), not so small as to prevent making it worthwhile.

Stuart Rose, former boss of Marks and Spencer, suggests a cheque for £250 on receipt of a dose; but that seems to be too large, and would trigger resentment. A better idea might be to revive and improve the old “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign, and offer a £10 or £20 voucher to spend in a bar or restaurant, for every jab. A “nudge” in other words. That would also have the additional benefit of boosting a sector which has been hammered over the past year.

Only if that campaign and similar, such as mobile vaccination buses on campuses or at festivals (such as trialled at Latitude), all failed should we consider vaccine passports for clubs, university gatherings and so on. We certainly shouldn’t rule these out, but the last few months suggest that voluntary action can be effective – given a little time.

The terrible thing is that Johnson just didn’t give the vaccination programme and the younger people enough time, and then he turned round and sabotaged his whole policy by removing the last restrictions on their liberty, the last incentive for them to get jabbed. It would have been much better if he had behaved like a teacher keeping a class behind until they all admitted and apologised for some prank or other, at which point, and not before, they would all be set free. Instead, before too long, we will all find ourselves being “kept in” again.

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Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?

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