Last week I saw Chris Whitty described as the Madonna of science. Such is his level of fame, that he just has to step outside the front door and we stare, agog, murmuring to ourselves about Sage and R numbers.
He may well be a little higher than Madonna. Not to take pot-shots at the queen of pop, but Covid has taught us just how vital are the quiet, implacable big-brained people like Whitty and those scientists who have come up with the increasing variety of vaccines. Papa Don’t Preach is great, but it won’t lift lockdown.
As in all things, there isn’t unanimity in this. Some people think they know better; the Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers, people who read a Facebook post and start to angle for the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Professor Chris Whitty faced one last week. An angry boy buttonholed him at a food stall in central London. “You’re a liar,” said the boy. “You lie about the Covid-19 cases… stop lying to the TV, man.”
There was an immediate, loud backlash. It was “appalling”, said MP Matt Vickers. Others agreed.
The calm Professor Whitty was calmer. He said he thought it was just a young lad “showing off”.
Turns out, he was right. The boy was 15. And his mother was NOT happy. She took his PlayStation off him, which, she said, “is the thing he loves the most”.
And then she said something really interesting.
There is the actuality of how young people actually ARE. I think a lot of us have forgotten
“He was trying to give a message across to Mr Whitty and make him understand what he and other youngsters are going through, but I’m very upset and angry with him over how he did it.
“I have not grounded him because he is already suffering enough from the lockdown and does not go out as much as he used to.”
I know a number of people will have no sympathy for this point of view. But I do.
Teenagers are among the groups taking the biggest hammering at the minute. And they remain the easiest targets and people to blame. House parties and super-spreader events? Half a dozen hooded shapes in a rain-sodden park. That’s young people, that is, all gathered together being loud and young. Fine them! Make examples of them! Damn them!
We spend our lives telling young people that education is everything, they can’t miss a single day at school, they must focus all the time to get ahead. And then we take them out of school, say we’ll muddle together something that will approximate exam results, and stop worrying about it. And by the way, don’t THINK about seeing your friends.
Then the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that the Covid out-of-school period could cost young people £40,000 in lost earnings over their lifetime. Consider seeing that warning as a confused, emotionally bruised teen.
There is the actuality of how young people actually ARE. I think a lot of us have forgotten. At 15, I was basically a loosely covered bag of hormones with floppy hair, under daily attack from testosterone. Imagine having nowhere to expend that energy. It’s going to have an impact.
And did I tell you NOT to even think about seeing your friends.
Clearly, many, many parts of society are suffering. People are losing family members. They’re losing jobs and livelihoods. This is not some blinkered cri de coeur on behalf of those with their lives in front of them. Neither is it an insistence that lockdown restrictions are lessened just for them.
It’s a pre-emptive call to dial down sneering and blame. In recent days a coalition of childcare experts warned, in an open letter to The Observer, about children’s welfare becoming a national emergency. “The next generation deserves better,” they said.
And they’re right. Can’t see Chris Whitty arguing with that.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue