When coronavirus hit, Florence Read retired to her partner’s family home on the Isle of Wight, seeking peace. Little did she know that she’d soon be a human guinea pig in a scientific experiment
When COVID-19 was officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic, I was sitting in an Irish bar in Manhattan eating a free bowl of peanuts. The kind of peanuts that were left out for people to lick their fingers and sift through. That’s how we used to live – remember?
As bad news rolled in and international flights were cancelled, we decided that the best place we could be was at my partner’s childhood cottage on the Isle of Wight. There, at least, we could hunker down and be close to our families on the island and in London.
So we hurried back to England and six weeks passed in total isolation. The island’s cases were under control, thanks to swift action from the ferry companies. There is no bridge or tunnel connecting the Isle of Wight to the mainland, so without its million average annual visitors, the island has been left eerily empty, populated only by its 140,000 year-round residents and a few hangers-on like me.
Unlike my family in London, I could take a long walk without seeing anyone at all. There were no heaving super-spreaders in overcrowded parks or sunbathers being kettled by riot police. Other than the occasional army helicopter flying overhead you could have easily forgotten about the global pandemic. The biannual scarecrow festival was still going ahead. We could grow our own vegetables, forage wild garlic and eat local honey from the village beekeeper.
Clever me, I thought, escaping the dystopian future into pastoral bliss, far from the horrors of New York.
Then I woke up to a text from a friend in Brooklyn: “Do you have it?” A bit blunt, I thought, given the situation. But ‘it’ was not what I thought.
The news broke the next day in the Isle of Wight County Press that a virus tracking app was to be trialled on the island. Health secretary Matt Hancock announced that “where the Isle of Wight leads, the rest of Britain will follow”. Without warning, a place that felt like a 1950s time capsule was suddenly on the cutting edge. Come for the crazy golf, stay for the tech-futurism.
Signs on the roads had appeared overnight flashing in red with the words ‘DOWNLOAD APP’. In a rare fit of deference, I did what I was told.
The app itself is just about as basic as you can imagine. After downloading it you are presented with an icon outlined by yellow and green hazard tape – all very reassuring. After entering your postcode you will find a single page with the question: “How are you feeling today?”
“Existential dread for the future of humanity” or “jubilation for the decline of global capitalism” are not options. Rather, the user is asked to check off a list of symptoms. If these are deemed suspicious (continuous cough, high temperature, you know the rest) then the app will order you a swab test within 24 hours. If this test proves positive then the app will send an alert to anyone who had been in close contact for 15 minutes or more with the infected user. In theory this should allow them to self-isolate and stop the spread of the virus. Smartphones must have their Bluetooth running at all times for the app to work. Every person you meet will be logged. The app is whirring away in the background constantly.
According to the app’s developers there needs to be a 60% uptake to make the software effective. So far it has been reported that 40% of islanders have downloaded the app. If you are a key worker wearing PPE the instructions tells you to switch your Bluetooth off while wearing protective gear, so that it only picks up on infection risks outside of hospitals and care-homes.
I downloaded the app for three reasons: I would feel guilty for avoiding it as a non-native visiting the island for quarantine, I would like to know if I should self isolate to protect vulnerable members of my family and I have given away all my data already, so a little more couldn’t hurt.
The Isle of Wight has an older than average population thanks to its large retirement communities and so its residents are more likely to be in a high-risk category for complications of coronavirus. They are also far less likely to have an up-to-date smartphone, a necessity for those hoping to download the tracking software. In an odd strategic move, instructional letters were sent to the island’s 80,000 households after the app went live to reach less digitally-minded residents.
Like the post-Brexit app which EU nationals had to use to apply for settled status, only available on Android, the COVID-19 app is only downloadable for those with a recent model of mobile. So the more profitable a consumer you are, the more likely you are to survive. Dumbphone users by lifestyle choice or economic necessity are left to ‘Stay Alert’ without any actual alerts. Over 18,000 human contact tracers are also being recruited to refer app users for testing the analog way. These ‘incredibly important customer service roles’ will be paid at minimum wage. Whether you will be able to receive advice from this service if you do not have the app is unclear.
The broadsheets, usually uinterested or disdainful when it comes to the Isle of Wight, have jostled for a scoop. The Telegraph recently reported that the NHS Data Ethics Advisory Board has found that “their jobs have been made ‘difficult’ by poor access to information” about the trial. The Financial Times has also claimed that “the NHS has begun developing a second contact tracing app after privacy campaigners and technology experts raised concerns about the first one”. If a second app is developed who will test it? This island or another? Jersey? The Isle of Man? Eigg? Lundy? Richard Branson’s family and friends?
Amongst islanders a division has formed between resistors and the herd. Libertarian Facebook groups have sprung up to petition for data security. One Newport resident worried that her location could be leaked if records were hacked. Fingers crossed she doesn’t find out about Zuckerberg’s privacy policies. She’s in for an awful shock. A Ryde man publicly denounced his neighbours on a Neighbourhood Watch forum for not participating in the trial, despite owning smartphones. The social pressure previously associated with the weekly ‘clap for our carers’ has swiftly evolved into ‘app shaming’.
In theory it feels strange to be a viral guinea pig, but in practice nothing much has changed. Because we are still under almost total lockdown there are very limited opportunities to spend 15 minutes within touching distance of anyone. There was some worry last week that the security of an app might foster complacency, but islanders seem as cautious as ever. I can imagine its utility in a city, where avoiding contact with strangers is almost impossible. But here the nearest city is five miles across the Solent.
As of today, I have had no alerts. Every time my phone buzzes I have a panic attack. More often than not it’s an update from my Zodiac horoscope app; Venus is in retrograde and my networking opportunities are abundant, apparently. Living in a surveillance state isn’t so bad after all. Big Brother is watching, but it’s because he cares. The real horror is in my own conformity. I have found myself ostentatiously waving my phone about in the supermarket, hoping that the locals see that this ‘overner’ (the name for non-islanders) is willing to give up her civil liberties for the cause.