Tensions around lockdown rules have been in the air since mid-march. From disagreements surrounding which approach the government should take to who’s to blame for the rising number of cases in the UK. But with the return of universities in September, images of students gathering in large groups have dominated the front pages. Given that London is once more in lockdown mode, one cannot help but ask if students are to blame — or perhaps they are the convenient scapegoats of 2020?
The blame game
It is fair to say that students are probably the most social of groups in society, and I don’t think that anyone is denying that the videos from Concert square in Liverpool and the Soho district in London appear fairly incriminating. Throughout the pandemic young people have been consistently accused of being the ‘biggest spreaders’, and referenced in such a way which implies that they have done this intentionally with little regard for the more vulnerable groups in society. But is this really a fair assessment? Many of the older generations have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the lockdown rules and if you are to look at images of the anti-lockdown protests, they are hardly dominated by students. Ultimately, the last seven months has split the whole country into those who followed lockdown rules and those who didn’t. Lockdown 2.0 appears to have shifted a few people from the first category to the latter.
One word to describe this government throughout the crisis would be hypocritical. From the now infamous trip to Durham by Dominic Cummings, to Parliament originally approving bars/restaurants staying open past the 10pm curfew. They then told millions of students to move around the country and arrive from other countries to live in halls — often with 20+ people — and then accused them of being the cause of the spike.
Surely any competent person could have predicted that a spike would be inevitable given all this locomotion? The surge in cases is hardly the students’ fault. The government’s incompetence throughout this pandemic has led them to desperately place blame on anyone else but themselves — so why not pick on a group who largely attempted to vote them out of Parliament late last year. Ultimately, whatever group or age category we are discussing, people will (rightly) reject their liberty being taken away unless it is for justifiable reasons. This of course is a health emergency, but one which most will agree could have been handled much better.
A mental health time-bomb
The lack of consideration for people’s mental health is an issue that has come to the forefront. In March a lockdown was necessary to get to grips with a new virus, but other health issues are still important. Yes, some students may still be socialising outside of their new bubbles. But until relatively recently, they were encouraged to do so. The same way the were encouraged to leave their families and their original familiar bubbles, in favour of living with strangers in a different city. Many of these students would have preferred to study from home, but they were persuaded that on-campus learning was essential — only for there to be a U-turn when the tiered system was introduced, leaving thousands of them locked in their rooms and isolated. Whereas many are ‘locked in’ with their immediate relatives or partners; students don’t have this luxury. This will inevitably have a destructive impact on many young people’s mental health. The recent tragic news about a Manchester student who sadly took his own life was, according to his father, due to a lack of support during the halls lockdown. I suspect he isn’t the only one feeling this absence of sympathy.
We rarely get an opportunity to see how different governments would respond to the same crisis, but in this situation that has been possible. The pandemic has plaid out in different degrees of severity across the globe. But at least when it comes to most European countries, the effects are comparable. All of these countries have students and they have introduced their own safety guidelines with greater or lesser levels of success. I am not denying that some freshers have engaged in reckless behaviour. That is not really the main issues here. The expected problem of people socialising outside of the guidelines is something that needs to be addressed more fundamentally by the government as we head into 2021. The least that should have been done was to create a system of restrictions that were strong enough to prevent a second wave and a second lockdown from having to be imposed.
We all have a social and moral responsibility to protect others. Finding a group on which to place blame for your own misgivings is not productive. The bottom line is that we have a democratically elected government who have not done what they promised or what needed doing to protect people. We should be directing our questions at them, instead of blaming teenagers — many of whom are sticking rigorously and stoically to the poorly worked out guidelines.