Lockdown in the UK has been extended – inevitable as the virus rages on – and there is no light yet at the end of this tunnel. Matt Hancock’s abysmal performance in Tuesday’s press conference was discouraging, with yet another iteration of his promises and plans on testing unmet. A tin badge for care workers?
When the lockdown is finally lifted, the world we will finally emerge into looks dark. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has warned of a staggering 35% plunge in GDP this spring. Businesses are collapsing all around us, and according to the OBR’s forecast, unemployment may reach an unthinkable 10%.
The most obvious victims of the virus are older people, dying in multitudes in hospitals, care homes and in their own homes. Often they die alone, gasping for air and many, it’s feared, without sedation and morphine. Heartrending stories of nurses, doctors and others dying too young are the ones that grab our attention, but they are distant outliers on the graphs. The overwhelming number of deaths are among older people. According to figures from the ONS, 87% of those who have died from coronavirus are over 65.
The lockdown is primarily in place to protect the vulnerable – mainly the old but other frail people, too. It’s also there to protect the NHS from a surge that would have sunk it: the government was far slower than other European countries in its response, and as a result Britain may top European death rates. But, however reluctant at first, it became politically and morally impossible for the government to imagine a pile-up of some 500,000 coffins, the worst case warning of Imperial College epidemiologists. Sweden, refusing a shutdown, is now seeing its death rate soar above that of its locked-in neighbours. Will that be socially or politically sustainable?
The blighted lives of the young are also a tragedy. This year’s students, who are already heavily indebted, are emerging into a deep recession. Graduate recruitment is grinding to a halt and 68% of firms are cancelling work experience. Before, in the austerity years, graduates often had to work in service jobs – baristas, waiting staff, caterers, call-centre operators. Will these jobs still exist to fall back on this time around? No one knows if or how far the hospitality, entertainment, arts and events sectors will recover. And if graduates are knocked back, those without degrees will be hit even harder.
Stand back and look at the context. My lucky postwar gilded generation is the one being protected at the cost of everything else. Born into a brand new NHS, gifted free university education and jobs in a hugely expanding white-collar sector, we benefited from fine pensions and the mighty windfall of outrageously inflating property values for homes bought originally for a modest price.
Around one in six people born in the 1950s now owns a second home or buy-to-let property. No one intended to do down younger generations, but those in their 30s are already worse off than their parents were at their age, and less likely to own a home – ever. No home, no pension, university debt, no savings; no one designed this great betrayal, but no one stopped it happening either. Meanwhile, my generation overwhelmingly voted in Conservatives who rewarded them with a triple-locked old age pension rising above stagnant wages year after year: the old now are least likely to be poor.
That’s why, when this is all over, a huge redress is due to the young. A Social Market Foundation report this week argued that the burden of paying the enormous cost of the crisis should not fall on those of working age alone: £20bn could be saved over five years by abandoning the pension triple lock. In the FT yesterday, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, called for “a new social contract” with a more progressive tax system. Surely that will have to mean more justice between generations, and between earned and unearned income. Any social care reforms to raise standards must be paid for from the property assets of older people themselves.
Because we live and love in families, this generational divide seems emotionally abstract, with no conflict between grandparents and grandchildren. The young have admirably supported a lock-in to defend the old. They have not protested at how their patrimony will be stolen by the pensioners. Nor have they complained enough at how older people have thrust Brexit and the Conservatives on to them by sheer weight of numbers. The young are very nice, too nice for their own good, perhaps. But when this is over, it will be payback time for them.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist