Covid vaccine: Boris Johnson, the former Bullingdon Club stalwart, may not be best placed to persuade young people to be vaccinated – Aidan Smith

Bloody kids. Stubborn and self-centered. All they care about is themselves and the next party. They won’t do what’s asked of them, such as tidy their rooms. Or get the vaccine.
An advert for the social media campaign to encourage the young people to get vaccinated against Covid which has drawn criticismAn advert for the social media campaign to encourage the young people to get vaccinated against Covid which has drawn criticism
An advert for the social media campaign to encourage the young people to get vaccinated against Covid which has drawn criticism

Boris Johnson is frustrated right now. Thirty per cent of under 30s have still not come forward for their first jab. But I wonder if he’s thinking back to what he was like at the same age…

Magdalen College, Oxford, and a galleried room which had just been expensively refurbished: “Every piece of furniture that could have been broken was broken, every liquid sprayed around… the door smashed to pieces… everything piled in a heap in the middle.” These were the recollections of a former recruiter for the Bullingdon Club, the notorious campus society. “Boris was one of the big beasts of the club,” she told The Observer.

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Prostitutes were hired for dinners and performed sex acts at the table. A “come-as-your-alter ego” invite encouraged some to dress as Nazis. Students woken by the late-night destruction sprees would be terrified. On Oxford’s streets, club members would alarm locals by smashing bottles and shouting “Buller! Buller!”

Thinking they know it all. Believing themselves indestructible (unlike the Magdalen furniture). Johnson and his gang shared traits with many who are currently reluctant to vaccinate, adding entitlement, elitism and sexism which were special to them.

Of course young people should get the jab, but is the Prime Minister going about his campaign the right way and is he the best man to be issuing the clarion call? No and no.

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First, there were the dire warnings. You won’t get into nightclubs. You’ll miss football matches. Finding jobs will be hard, or even harder amid the Bullingdon-force devastation visited on the economy by Covid. Many fun things, and one very necessary thing, might be out of your reach.

Then came the sweet talk. Fancy a pizza? Want to see that new blockbuster? Have an Uber-ride on us. The stick was swapped for the carrot and vouchers-for-vaccines. Kebabs-for-jabs, no less.

These are Westminster options for tempting treats, with Johnson seemingly believing that getting down wiv da kidz is the way to go. It remains to be seen if Nicola Sturgeon will add haggis suppers.

The UK is not alone in providing incentives or out-and-out bungs. In the US, home of the game show, the options could almost comprise a carousel of prizes: straight cash offer of $100, free beer, enhanced status on Tinder and other dating apps (“I may have a wooden leg but I’ve been jabbed”).

But hang on, pizzas? Should we be encouraging young people to lard up?

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Last month Johnson’s government launched the National Food Strategy aimed at removing the UK from the bronze-medal position for Europe’s most obese. No TV advertising for fatty foods before 9pm. No confectionery displays at supermarket checkouts. And shopping discounts if you buy more fruit and veg and sign up for exercise, with the PM conspicuously trying to shed pounds himself.

With free fast food in return for getting vaccinated, Johnson isn’t so much biting the hand that feeds as dolloping an extra layer of cheese on top. But such are the perils of Prime Ministers engaging with kids and trying to understand them.

David Cameron, at a time of rising juvenile crime, put it out there he was going to “hug a hoodie” and was widely ridiculed. Gordon Brown, at a time of low personal approval rating among young voters, had it put out there by the image makeover team that he liked listening to the Arctic Monkeys in the mornings. The indie band were the perfect accompaniment to ablutions, apparently, and to breaking up his porridge into bite-sized chunks with a jackhammer.

The result was more ridicule and let’s not forget Tony Blair inviting the hot new sounds of Britpop to a No 10 reception only for cocaine to be consumed between the canapes. Blair was in a band at uni so you’d think he might have been aware of the risks, but so keen was he to portray himself as the grooviest premier the yoof lobby had ever seen.

Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin has tried to court Russian teens but when the Kremlin, to demonstrate it was cool with and accepting of graffiti, began a conversation about “stritart” – street art – it unfortunately used the Russian word for arthritis.

From Ireland, a top 12 of clodhopping attempts at crossing the generation gap includes Dail discussions about sexting, use of the term “amazeyballs” and, on the election trail, a contender in a bunnet reworking “Shut Up and Dance”.

To encourage vaccinations here, there’s a social media drive but some might call it arthritic with the faces next to adverts proclaiming “Don’t miss out on going clubbing” and “Don’t miss out on going travelling” looking 35 at least. Pity poor No 10, though, and the staffer entrusted with penetrating the mystical world of TikTok without coming across as foolish.

Johnson will feel that – stick, carrot, kebab – he cannot win. He might reckon it a near-impossible task to win over what he privately calls the ignorant, the lazy, the feckless, the pretend-heroic and those who will offer up a very good reason for being jab refuseniks just as soon as they’ve worked out what it is.

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But he should remember that he was young once and, what’s more, he was ‘Buller Boris’ – a time in his life which he later admitted was “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness”.

Still, at least Johnson hasn’t resorted to rapping. And he may yet be forced to concede to the new survey which asserts that the best man for getting across the vaccine message to the young is Marcus Rashford.

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