On the tiny island of Sark, in the middle of the English channel, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the rest of the world is in the grips of a deadly pandemic. Nobody’s wearing a mask; there’s no social distancing in place; and people are going about their everyday lives.
Life is basically pretty much the same as always for the 400 or so inhabitants on the sleepy, car-less isle. And so it can be. Because self-governing Sark is one of only a handful of places in the world that has managed to remain Covid-19-free. As the hereditary “seigneur” of Sark — a relic of the feudalism that the island was under until 2008 — Christopher Beaumont put it to us:
Sark has no precautions. No virus = no need.
Sark entered lockdown on March 24, The decision was made by its rather grand-sounding Pandemic Emergency Committee, or PEC, which consists of some of the island’s 18-member-strong amateur parliament — known as “Chief Pleas” — as well as the church minister, the “Island Safeguarding Officer”, and “a chap who created a Facebook page”, as the seigneur put it. The island came out of lockdown completely at the beginning of June, having already reopened its school at the start of May as restrictions began to ease.
Had the virus arrived on Sark, things could have been tricky. Its demographics are heavily skewed towards the elderly end of the spectrum, and there is just one doctor. Fancy ventilators or ICU beds are nowhere to be found, and the nearest hospital is on the island of Guernsey, a 10-mile sea crossing away (which Alphaville can personally confirm can be quite rough, even if you’re feeling in fine health). Luckily it never arrived, and so normal life has resumed.
(We’re not sure of the situation on the neighbouring island of Brecqhou, which is legally a part of Sark, and which is owned by the feuding 85-year-old Barclay brothers. But we reckon it’s big enough for any social or familial distancing.)
The only thing out of the ordinary on Sark today is that, for late July, it’s quieter than normal. The 150,000 tourists that normally flock to the Bailiwick of Guernsey — of which Sark is a part, and which also includes the islands of Alderney, Herm and Jethou — during the summer months each year has been reduced to a trickle, due to Guernsey’s strict 14-day quarantine rules.
Guernsey has been praised for its response to the virus, having initiated a “test, trace and isolate” policy after closing its borders early on. It’s had just 252 cases and 13 deaths, and was the first place in the British Isles to be declared coronavirus-free back in late May. It hasn’t messed about with enforcing its rules either; three men who decided to break their two-week quarantine to go to the pub were ordered by a court on Guernsey last week to pay fines of a total of £12,000 or face jail sentences. One of the three who is not paying the fine is being sent to prison for either 150 or 300 days.
However that’s meant the Bailiwick’s 67,000-odd residents are now incentivised to holiday in their neighbouring islands. So visitors to Sark have not fallen as dramatically as feared.
Jan Milner, who runs the Sark Shipping Company, told us passenger numbers on the Sark Belle, the boat that brings passengers from Guernsey to Sark (the only route) were much better than he had expected:
We’d set up to not expect any passengers through the summer, so it’s a lot better than I expected. We’re running at around about 50 per cent of the normal — that was July’s result. There’s no quarantine, so you can go anywhere within the Bailiwick — it’s open travel — whereas if you go to the UK, when you come back there’s 14 days of self-isolation or the possibility of a £10,000 fine. We’ve got a captive market, it’s just not a very big market.
Even during lockdown, life in Sark didn’t change much..
Given the island’s residents pay no income tax and have no welfare system, there was no weekly clapping for the NHS like there was in the rest of the UK (of which Sark is not part). Beaumont told us:
We don’t have anything to do with the NHS. We don’t pay UK tax so we don’t get any benefits with the UK NHS.
And with no taxes, there was no possibility of furloughing people either. Some people had their hours cut, particularly those in the hospitality sector, but it is normal for people to do more than one job in Sark, and many quickly adapted to take on other work. The seigneur told us:
I must admit I took advantage of that and offered employment to those who were in that situation. We managed to get a whole pile done that we wouldn’t have thought of doing — mostly clearance of bits of the garden that have been lying dormant for 60 years. A man with a digger can do a hell of a lot of stuff, even if he’s only doing it two days a week.
The seigneur did tell FT Alphaville that residents are being a little more vigilant than normal, but it didn’t really strike us that this was a particularly big ordeal. It doesn’t seem to have affected the seigneur’s household too much anyway:
We’re quite vigilant anyway. We would take a lettuce and we’d wash it — that sort of thing.
There were some disruptions, however. Sark’s annual sheep racing event — “the highlight of the Channel Islands social calendar”, as the organisers put it — was cancelled. And the commemoration of the island’s 75th anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis became a “stay-at-home street party”. (Simultaneous front-garden picnics might feel like a street party on a terraced London street, but we are not sure that Sark, which has about one person for every two acres of land, will have quite achieved this.)
The food shops closed, too, and became delivery services, with the islanders’ shopping being delivered up to twice a week by tractor (which, along with horse-and-carriage or bicycle, is the only way of getting around the island apart from by foot) for one Guernsey pound.
The island’s three tiny pubs also had to shut up shop, and remained closed while the social distancing rules imposed by Guernsey remained in place (which they did until the start of June). So that meant no weekly meat draw either — another highlight of Sark life. However, as we know, coronavirus has been credited for speeding up various digital transformations, and Sark seems to have been no exception: the meat draw has now been reinstated but for the first time is now also streamed live on Facebook. Here are some of last week’s prizes (picture taken from the Sark Draw page):
Could places like Sark become post-Covid hotspots?
Of course, being a small island gives you a considerable advantage when it comes to holding a global pandemic at bay. For instance a number of remote Scottish islands have remained Covid-19-free, as well as a bunch of bigger islands.
Yet not every remote island has managed to keep the virus out. The tiny outpost of Cuttyhunk in Massachusetts, which according to the Boston Globe has a year-round population of just ten, had a case confirmed last week.
The advantages of Sark in a post-coronavirus future (or a future in which we are forced to live with the virus) are not limited to it being cut off from the rest of the world though. If all the above doesn’t appeal to you then the island’s income-tax-free, stamp-duty-free and VAT-free status might.
Swen Lorenz, a German who runs a hedge fund (and who once campaigned for Arron Banks’s Leave.EU campaign), first moved to Sark in 2004. He told us as long as you are happy to live somewhere where there is essentially no social safety net, Sark was quite lovely:
It’s just a very pleasant place to live with wonderful scenery. And on top of that you have the added tax benefits.
You do have to take charge of your own destiny in the sense that nobody here provides you with a pension or with health insurance or any of that . . . But if you have a job that is portable then this is obviously an attractive jurisdiction to consider.
As “remote working” becomes more common, remote islands like Sark might become more attractive. And as the seigneur pointed out to us, with taxes likely to rise in the coming years, the island could become even more appealing:
From a “Could you move to Sark?” point of view, if you can work from home and you’re not tied to a particular place of work — if you’re an IT specialist for example and you can work wherever you’ve got an internet connection, then why would you stay in the UK when you’re going to get taxed for your endeavours, when you can come to Sark and get not taxed for your endeavours? People haven’t woken up to this yet . . .
I reckon for somebody who is paying the top rate of tax, in five years you could come and live on Sark and you wouldn’t pay any of that. So in five years you can build up, say, a quarter-of-a-million-pound pot for your pension. Nobody’s going to take that money off you.
The island of Sark goes into lockdown — FT Alphaville
Alphaville spent 36 hours on the island of Sark. Here’s how it went. — FT Alphaville
Will the lights go out on Sark this Christmas? — FT Alphaville
Sark’s electricity crisis is brewing again — FT Alphaville
Sark’s energy hits prices only billionaires can afford — FT Alphaville
What can the failed Brecq-xit teach us about Brexit? — FT Alphaville
Sark: how electricity sparked Channel island crisis — FT