Johnson’s scapegoating the young over Covid jabs is not a wise tactic

The Conservative party has a problem with young people. In the last general election fewer than one in six of the under-25s voted for Boris Johnson, and it is unlikely that the pandemic has improved matters.

While it’s the case that elderly people have been most at risk of contracting Covid-19 and dying from it, the economic cost has been highest for teenagers and those in their 20s. It is young people, whose jobs are disproportionately concentrated in the retailing and hospitality sectors, that have been most likely to be furloughed or had their roles made redundant.

Nor is it just working young people who have suffered. The closure of schools has had a negative impact on the mental health and the educational attainment of children, especially those from less well-off households. Students have been paying full whack for university that includes all the hard work without any of the communal rite-of-passage experiences that make it fun.

All things considered, young people have been pretty good-natured about this. They have been prepared to make personal sacrifices to protect grandma and grandad even though the chances of them dying from Covid-19 were – and remain – low.

If that patience is now wearing thin, it is hardly surprising. The government promised that when grandma and grandad had been vaccinated – as they now have been – restrictions would be lifted and young people would be able to party hard for the first time in 18 meses.

Ahora, ministers are drawing up plans for vaccine passports, which will give bouncers on the doors of clubs a new reason to deny access, as in: “Sorry, you haven’t been double jabbed so I can’t let you in.”

The message to young people is that they will have only themselves to blame for the new restrictions because take-up of vaccines is low, and that the alternative is to close clubs entirely. Actually, the alternative is a properly functioning test, trace and isolate system, but in the meantime young people make convenient scapegoats for the government’s failings.

Eso dicho, there is certainly a vaccine age divide. Jab rates are well over 90% for those aged 70 y por encima, but only about two-thirds of people under 30 have had at least one dose of protection.

Other countries face the same problem and are also demonstrating a willingness to get tough. There was a big take-up in people booking appointments in France after Emmanuel Macron said trains, bars and shopping malls would be off limits to unvaccinated people from August, but the move has also led to big protestas.

En los EE.UU, Joe Biden has said federal employees who refuse to be vaccinated will have to subject themselves to regular coronavirus tests.

In all three countries – the UK, Francia and the US – the fear is that vaccination rates are not high enough to ensure that infection rates remain low as the nights draw in and the weather turns cold. The governments are terrified at the prospect of having to reimpose lockdowns this autumn and hence are ramping up the pressure on the unvaccinated.

Biden, aunque, is using carrots as well as sticks. The White House is calling on individual states to use money from his stimulus package to give $100 (£72) to every unjabbed American who comes forward to be vaccinated.

As the president accepted, this approach has its drawbacks, not least that those who have already come forward may consider it wrong that they get nothing while refuseniks get financially rewarded.

The economic case for Biden’s initiative, aunque, is much stronger. Incentives affect behaviour, which explains why governments use the tax system to get businesses to do things they may not otherwise do, such as invest in research and development or buy new machinery.

A $100 payment will not be enough to induce every unvaccinated American to come forward, because it is clear that many people will be unpersuaded of the benefits no matter how big the inducement. But some will be incentivised, and if the inducement persuades a sufficient number to be jabbed it will be money well spent, because the cost of the payments would be far outweighed by the dislocation caused by a fresh lockdown. Limiting the cheques to the hitherto unvaccinated causes political problems but is financially efficient because it avoids “dead weight” costs – payments to get people to do something they would have done anyway.

Something similar would be feasible in the UK at relatively low cost. There are roughly 10 million people aged between 18 y 30, of whom one-third – say 3 million – have yet to be vaccinated. A one-off payment of £100 to each of them would cost Rishi Sunak £300m – chickenfeed when set against the £300bn the state borrowed last year as result of the lockdowns. The chancellor is intent on saving £4bn by temporarily suspending the triple lock on pensions this year and could comfortably fund vaccine payments out of the savings, and make a political statement at the same time.

The government does seem to be edging in this direction, with young people to be offered discounts on taxi rides and takeaways if they come forward to be vaccinated. Direct payments would be a much stronger incentive.

While urging young people to be jabbed, Johnson and Sunak are making plans for an increase in national insurance contributions that will add to intergenerational inequity by making young people pay for the social care of their grandparents. Because NI is not paid by those above the state retirement age, the immediate beneficiaries of the new levy will not have to make a contribution to it. If the prime minister is really serious about wooing voters under-25 here’s a bit of advice for him: try more carrot and less stick.

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