Why was the Isle of Wight left so vulnerable to Covid catastrophe? | Hannah Ewens


For brief moments, life in tier 1 could be blissful ignorance. Throughout last year, a handful of small, secluded pockets of England were able to continue with barely any Covid restrictions. It was something few people experienced in 2020 – you might have lived in Cornwall, on the Isles of Scilly, or my childhood home, the Isle of Wight – and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

I’d spent the first lockdown in London living with multiple other people in a small rented flat, with all of us working from home, and my bedroom essentially a communal space. Soon after the first lockdown ended I came back to stay with my dad; it was only supposed to be for a month, but I stayed until mid-December. Unsurprisingly, the perfect tonic for an anxious nervous system and “unprecedented times” was a break from the pandemic altogether. The Isle of Wight’s transformation from Covid sanctuary to Covid disaster zone this week has been as devastating as it has been rapid – only a few months ago, it was unimaginable.

Walking down the pier from the ferry terminal last summer felt like entering another world. It was truly unnerving to emerge from months inside to a proverbial Neverland. Groups of people sat drinking pints of cider, eating takeaway burgers, or sunbathing on the sea wall. It was a glimpse of the island in bloom: the one that festival-goers from the mainland know, the place everyone who went on a school trip to the Isle of Wight remembers, the one second-home owners come for.

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Life went on in 2020 as normal for islanders, which is to say slowly, quietly, contentedly – and unbearably for anyone of working age or younger without a car. Cafes were open and half empty as usual. Gyms were open. Outdoor bars were running along the various seafronts. Pandemic fatigue just didn’t exist. By early December, I knew nearly as many people who claimed they would refuse to take the vaccine as those who were willing and eager – such was the perceived absence of threat to people’s lives from Covid.

But the island’s year of innocence could never last. In a matter of a week at the end of December, we went from tier 1 to tier 4. Things have got so bad, so fast, that military helicopters may need to be sent in to evacuate people to mainland hospitals. The wider national narrative about Britain’s second wave has been that people travelling home and then mixing at Christmas has been responsible. Yet on the Isle of Wight, locals have been mixing with abandon all year, with little problem – so what went wrong?

As soon as the second lockdown was over in early December, mainlanders swarmed over the sea, desperate for a night out or a weekend away. On Friday and Saturday nights in December, groups of people were coming over from Portsmouth – already a tier 4 area – to the island’s pubs and bars to get drunk. This was common knowledge in the lead-up to Christmas. Memes were circulating – viral among Facebook mums and dads – about mainlanders coming over to do just that (one in my family WhatsApp group depicted The Simpsons’ pitchfork mob with the caption, “Seeing someone from another tier visiting the Isle of Wight”). One local told the County Press that he saw “coaches of people piling into local hotels and evening lights ablaze in the many second homes”. It’s a tiny insular place, and when change occurs, it will not go unnoticed.

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It won’t all have been boozy daytrippers, of course – mainlanders with links to the island also rushed home to their families for Christmas. In a never-ending pandemic, people will make questionable decisions to support their mental health and resilience (my own to return to the island was exactly that). But whatever the reason, there seemed to be little to no policing of the transport links to the island, no attempt to stop people coming over in groups.

The very reason the island was a tier 1 sanctuary was the same reason that it had to stay that way. There is only one hospital on the whole island and it’s one of the smallest in the country. The Isle of Wight’s population is ageing and at risk. Allowing people to travel across the water for any reason was like dropping a brick in a puddle and not expecting to get splashed.

Now that crisis has hit, islanders are acting like the rest of the country did in the first half of 2020. It is often said that the island is a good decade behind the rest of the UK, and once again this feels true. My family are now terrified, where before they couldn’t understand my worry. Whole social circles I know have contracted the virus and many of my mum’s friends and colleagues have it – a close friend has lost her husband. Thousands of cases aren’t just abstract numbers when you recognise nearly every face in your town.

The island and its residents were sentenced to this fate by being placed in tier 1 before Christmas. The government has utterly failed to address the spread of the virus via unnecessary travel; with such high rates of the virus along the south coast of England in December, people should never have been allowed to escape to our vulnerable island, simply for a fleeting moment of bliss. It’s grim to contemplate – and who can stomach any more moralising about people’s pandemic behaviour? – but in some cases, the cost of a pint has been a life.

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