Damian Green is a former First Secretary of State, Chair of the One Nation Caucus, and is MP for Ashford.
One of the main purposes of the All-Party Group on Longevity, which I chair, is to change the whole tone of the debate around older people. We are on average living longer, and the APPG thinks this is a cause for celebration of increased opportunities for millions, not a reason to complain about the extra weight borne by younger generations.
Older people can and do contribute to the economy and society. They are not victims or a burden.
All of this makes me nervous at some of the policy debate about Coronavirus. It is too easy to slip into the mindset which defines a group as “the vulnerable and elderly”. It is of course true that the vulnerable, such as those who have particular medical conditions, need more protection. Looking ahead this may be a group that are forced into isolation for longer than the rest of the population.
It is also true that the chances of belonging to this vulnerable group increase with age. “Underlying medical conditions”, to use a phrase with which we have all become familiar, tend to accrete over the decades.
But this does not mean that everyone over 70 is vulnerable. There are nearly 9 million people over 70 in this country. Many of them are in rude health. Probably more than any other section of the population, they behave sensibly, and are willing and able to go about their lives practising social distancing in a responsible way.
In this context, the policy advice that vulnerable people will have to put their lives on hold until some indefinite period in the future when we have a vaccine needs stringent examination. In particular, the idea floated that the over 70s as a group will have to be locked down perhaps for another year or 18 months whatever happens to the rest of the population will not be acceptable.
Indeed, as this week has gone on the prospects have become even more threatening, with some scientists reducing the age where vulnerability seems to become automatic to 65, or even 60. This is nonsense. There are 1.2 million over-65s in the workforce, about one in ten of that age group. The whole thrust of policy in recent years has been to encourage people to work for much longer than in previous generations.
This is not just an economic benefit for the country: it is one of the best ways for an older individual to retain a sense of purpose, which evidence shows reduces the risk of morbidity and depression. We absolutely should not take steps to reverse this process.
One of the great successes of the Government so far has been the almost universal willingness of the British public to obey the lockdown measures. A few idiots seem to think they are immune, but they are very few, and I suspect vanishingly small numbers of them are over 70. One of the balancing acts the Government needs to perform successfully over the coming weeks is to allow gradual relaxation while maintaining the new attitude to personal health preservation.
This is indeed a desperately difficult judgement. In one sense, the easiest decision is to leave things as they are for many more weeks. But every week is another blow to the economy, and the job prospects of millions of people. We have all learned that keeping R below 1 is the key, but no one knows what happens to R in a post-lockdown world. It will go up, but how far?
In this context there are two important points. The first is that older people are much more likely to be sensible when faced with the return of familiar freedoms which could be dangerous in a Covid world. If they know they are really vulnerable, they will not go out. The illusion of immortality is a young person’s mistake. Equally, even if they know they are fit and well they will not go mad and put themselves and others at risk.
The second is that we should not let the average be the enemy of the sensible. Of course, on average the older you are the more likely you are to suffer if you catch the virus. But these averages disguise the truth, which is that there are many conditions which seem to expose you to danger. The most significant is being male. Do we try to draw public policy from this inescapable fact? Behind the averages are millions of older individuals who are all adults, and who can be trusted to lead their lives in a cautious and sensible way.
At least they can be trusted to do this unless they feel they are being treated unfairly. If you tell them for no very good reason that they cannot see their grandchildren for 18 months, they will start ignoring the rules. And that hard-won confidence in the lockdown rules will be lost.
They won’t riot. But they will grumble and harbour a sense of resentment. They would be right to feel resentful, and we should not push them into this. It would be wrong in principle, and separately it would be a howling political mistake.