The drum beat has started for another round of Covid restrictions.
The NHS Confederation, the body representing NHS staff, wants the Government to impose ‘Plan B’ to manage rising cases – with masks mandatory again in public spaces, home-working and vaccine passports.
The trade union Unite has demanded reimposition of masks on public transport.
On Thursday, the British Medical Association accused Ministers of ‘wilful negligence’ for rejecting a move to ‘Plan B’.
So far, officially at least, the Government has resisted these calls.
And dissenting Tory MPs have condemned them, with Steve Baker accusing technocrats of sacrificing Britain’s freedoms on the altar of healthcare administration.
The NHS Confederation wants the Government to impose 'Plan B' to manage rising cases, with masks mandatory again in public spaces, home-working and vaccine passports
He says: ‘We cannot allow the liberties of the people of this country to be a tool of NHS capacity management.’
But as Britain faces such calls to ‘protect the NHS’ at the expense of going about our everyday lives, it’s worth remembering who has paid the steepest price for measures taken to protect it so far. Also, who is most fearful of the NHS falling over.
With the UK birth rate below replacement since the 1970s, the baby-boomer generation is the country’s largest single cohort, with 14.28 million members in 2019.
According to the Financial Times, about 80 per cent of all UK wealth is held by this group, including more than half of UK housing wealth.
And with the boomers now flocking into retirement, one of the most troubling trends in politics has been an increasingly open breakdown of solidarity between this powerful, rich demographic and the generations coming after them.
The most familiar example of this conflict is the stand-off between older people fighting housing over-development, and young people desperate for affordable homes.
This battle recently saw the seemingly safe Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire fall to the Lib Dems, in a by-election campaign dominated by debate about building on the Green Belt.
Another issue is how to fund ballooning adult social-care costs, when the proportion of working, taxpaying adults to retirees is shrinking.
But perhaps the most under-discussed source of tension is, for many, literally a matter of life and death: Covid restrictions.
So far, the Government has resisted these calls for another round of Covid restrictions
Throughout the pandemic, support for restrictions has been highest among older generations.
Ninety-two per cent of over-65s supported lockdowns, according to a YouGov poll in January.
This is understandable, as (according to Age UK) the risk to life from catching Covid rises rapidly over the age of 60, from less than one in 1,000 under 60 to 18 in 1,000 for the over-90s.
Overall, though, Britons across all age groups have supported lockdowns, showing commendable solidarity to help protect those most vulnerable to serious illness.
But while lockdowns have taken their toll on us all, they’ve impacted cruelly on the young, starting with babies and their mothers.
The mental health charity Mind reports that with support groups and services shut down and family blocked from visiting, new mums have faced health anxiety and stark post-birth isolation.
Miserable mothers mean miserable babies: 47 per cent of new mums interviewed by the Parent-Infant Foundation reported concerns over their little ones’ clinginess.
A further 26 per cent worried about increased crying and tantrums. The poorest mums reported these worries at twice the rate of their wealthier peers.
And it’s not just babies who have suffered. Children’s wellbeing has suffered across the board: one recent study by YoungMinds found that 80 per cent of young people said the pandemic had worsened their mental health.
It’s also devastated schooling.
Teachers worked hard during lockdown to provide some kind of ongoing education.
But shutting schools has blown a huge crater in a generation’s learning – a crater that gets bigger the poorer you are.
According to the National Foundation for Education Research, engagement has been patchy, with only about 40 per cent of pupils returning their latest assignment. In the most deprived areas, engagement was 13 per cent lower again.
It’s hardly surprising. Even the most motivated pupil would struggle with remote learning if confined to a cramped or chaotic home, with limited internet access or study space.
And when the charity MSI Choices reports a 33 per cent increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, it’s likely many of these children were trying to study in just such frightening conditions.
Meanwhile, university-age youth were encouraged to return to campus, only to be locked down again and told to link up to video lectures and tutorials from their digs – while paying full tuition fees.
It’s not just students who were isolated. Office for National Statistics data showed that those aged 16 to 29 were twice as likely as over-70s to be lonely during the pandemic.
As Britain faces such calls to ‘protect the NHS’ at the expense of going about our everyday lives, it’s worth remembering who has paid the steepest price for measures taken to protect it so far
And the Mental Health Foundation reports that young people, full-time students and single parents were the loneliest.
The young have borne the brunt of the economic shock as well. Another ONS report shows that more than two-thirds of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic were under 25.
Young people who have kept their jobs were hard hit, too. Some older workers with families, spacious homes and established careers welcomed the opportunity to work from home – but the arrangement has been less happy for young working adults.
Early-career employees need training: IPSOS reports that 60 per cent of workers under the age of 24 and 50 per cent of 25-to-40-year-olds have struggled while deprived of face-to-face time with their colleagues.
And to cap it all, the Government recently announced that working-age adults will have to pay a new ‘health and social care levy’ to help fund the NHS. For young graduates earning more than £30,000, this will amount to a 50 per cent tax rate.
According to one recent study, the Covid death rate for under-18s is about two in every million.
Despite this relatively low risk, the young have made these sacrifices with little complaint.
They have sacrificed friendship, opportunity, education and mental well-being to help halt the spread of coronavirus.
They’ve shown a willingness to forgo life experience, to face stunted career prospects and loneliness, to miss out on life and love and learning.
They’ve endured missed schooling and developmental delays. Domestic violence. Poverty. Elevated taxes to pay for the aftermath.
Britain’s youth are a far cry from the whining, self-absorbed snowflakes of cruel stereotype.
During the pandemic, they’ve shown a public-spirited solidarity for which we should all be grateful.
Now, another round of health terror is being whipped up by politicos and technocrats.
This isn’t to protect the public. They’re doing it to shield their fraying fiefdoms from the kind of pressure that would show up years of maladministration.
We can argue all day about how the NHS got into such a state that it might seem reasonable to abolish civil liberties so our healthcare infrastructure doesn’t fall over.
And of course it’s wrong to pit the generations against one another.
Now, nearly two years into this horrible pandemic, we know the brutal facts about the risks and costs of Covid.
Pictured: National Medical Director for NHS England Stephen Powis. While lockdowns have taken their toll on us all, they’ve impacted cruelly on the young, starting with babies and their mothers.
If we ignore the asymmetrical price paid by children and young people for measures to control a virus that poses little danger to them, we will be pitting the old against the young.
No one is threatening a return to a full lockdown – yet. But we’re told that Cabinet Office officials are discussing a ‘Plan C’ that would forbid mixing between households.
The drum beat is getting louder by the day.
As the country faces this prospect, we need much more vocal solidarity for the young people who are Britain’s future.
They have sacrificed enormously over the past two years, despite being at little risk from Covid themselves.
For the sake of our community as a whole, and for the young, we must stand up for everyday life.
For an individualistic and secular boomer generation, often gripped by a fear of death, this is a big ask.
But if Britain is to thrive as a nation across the generations, it is vital to have higher principles than bare survival at any price.
Mary Harrington is contributing editor at UnHerd.