Where the Isle of Wight goes, Britain follows


[Originally written for and published by Empoword Journalism]

The Isle of Wight has been selected as the new testing ground for the government’s test, trace, and trace app. But is the secluded diamond floating off of the South Coast really the best place to trial a new piece of technology?

“She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world.” – Jane Austen

It’s an oft cited snippet from Mansfield Park, and is perhaps the most famous mention of the Isle of Wight on record.

A new quote jostled to take its place on 4 May however, courtesy of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s Covid-19 press briefing: “Where the Isle of Wight goes, Britain follows” featured in his speech detailing the island’s new role as a testing ground for the NHS ‘test, track and trace’ app. 

Having moved to the Mainland after growing up on the Isle of Wight, I’ve suffered the myriad of jokes about our mud hut accommodation and lack of electricity, as well as genuine queries as to whether we even have healthcare facilities. It’s safe to say that the notion of us leading Britain anywhere was an alien concept prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

Isle of Wight Festival
Isle of Wight Festival, 2014

While many islanders were excited to get a mention on the news for something other than our annual music and garlic festivals, others were furious at the thought of serving as guinea pigs for mainlanders. For many it prompted a lot of questions. Why trial an app in an area where more than a quarter of residents are over 65, and therefore far less likely to have a smartphone? What data would the app require? And most crucially, and confusingly, how are we supposed to be testing the app’s efficacy if we are all remaining two metres apart?

National news coverage of the trial has echoed many of those concerns, and in speaking to ITV News, one lady suggested that some of those concerns were not entirely unfounded:

“Here’s my phone,” she said while holding up an outdated Nokia.

“I don’t understand the internet and I don’t understand apps.” 

The Isle of Wight population as a whole is by no means technologically incompetent, but it does raise questions as to whether our demographic is the right pool for such a trial.

Cowes, Isle of Wight
Cowes, Isle of Wight

The most obvious reason for our selection is of course the very nature of the island – few people are coming and going unlike in other counties, making us a clear-cut group of test subjects. The island’s 140,000 residents are also covered by one NHS trust, which should prevent wires from crossing and simplify the ramping up of contact tracing.

Unsurprisingly the app has also given rise to political divide. MP for the Conservative stronghold, Bob Seely has been a keen advocate of his constituents leading the way, but the Green Party representative Vix Lowthion is refusing to download the NHS app on grounds of lack of trust in the system. It’s a tussle between marching on and ‘getting it done’ – a sentiment which won the Conservatives their majority – and holding back before taking action.

Within two days of the app becoming available across the island it had been downloaded by more than 40,000 residents, which is just under half of the 60% goal set by the Government. New figures in the coming days will show whether that is an achievable target, and whether the Isle of Wight has sufficiently stepped up to its task of leading Britain’s efforts to tackle coronavirus.


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