As a frequent traveller to China, having been to several cities there in November and to Hong Kong in January, I nervously tracked news of the outbreak of a new viral disease in Wuhan as it emerged.
With the number of cases of infection growing in the UK, I was surprised by the complacency of the British government as we watched images on television reflecting the explosion of cases – and deaths – in Italy and then Spain. I looked online to see what the government of the Isle of Man, where I live, was doing. As a dependency of the British Crown, as opposed to a constituent part of the United Kingdom, and having its own (much older) parliament than that in Westminster, the Island sets its own policies. The messages from the Isle of Man government were refreshingly concise and clear.
However, on ferry and air journeys to the Island at the end of February, I was surprised by the absence of warnings about COVID-19 and actions to be taken by potentially infected travellers. It seemed to be a no-brainer that a place that could easily limit entry of the virus to the community should be proactive in doing so. Evidently there were notices posted in the airport and on the ferry, but few people noticed them and I couldn’t understand why there was not a card on every seat on every flight and on every ferry crossing telling travellers what to do, and asking them where their travel had originated.
It was almost four weeks later that the Isle of Man introduced firm measures to limit the spread of the virus, including closing its borders to all but returning residents (who had then to be quarantined). So, like most other countries, including the UK, the government here was slow off the mark, but once it had announced the first firm and practical actions, it has proved to be a model for other small countries.
People over 70 years of age were required to completely isolate, except for one exercise outing per day or to buy food once a week; restaurants, pubs, hotels and non-essential retail businesses had to close. Strict social distancing was introduced for supermarkets and pharmacies; and a 40 MPH maximum speed limit was imposed on the entire island. This was to free up police from responding to accidents so they could enforce the isolation rules and to ease pressure on medical services that needed to prioritise responding to COVID-19.
As an over-70, I took advantage of the daily exercise dispensation to ride my bike for 15 to 20 miles each day or take a long brisk walk when the wind was too strong for cycling. This was a great boon for someone who spends most of his life on aeroplanes. I was greeted by an “other world” atmosphere.
My favourite walk hugs the coast alongside a golf course, with sweeping views across a bay to the island’s airport with hills rising beyond. No golfers, no aeroplanes apart from an occasional medical flight, and very few dog walkers were in sight. On the bike, I travel through gorgeous countryside with hardly any cars sharing the roads with me. In late April and early May, the ubiquitous bright yellow gorse, a trademark of the Isle of Man, offers a beautiful contrast to the green of the new leaves on trees and grass in fields. Red is also in evidence, being the colour of the Manx flag – three armoured gold and silver legs on a red background. The Island’s motto, associated with the three legs, is Quocunque Jeceris Stabit (whithersoever you throw it, it will stand) and the current profusion of flags is a defiant symbol of the population’s determination not to be cowed by the virus.
Sadly, though, some of the flags are flying at half-mast, a reminder that the Island has not escaped unscathed. I ride past a graveyard where I glimpse another red – poppies that symbolised the battlefields of Flanders and Picardy in the First World War, another reminder of the battle we all face with COVID-19. Just two miles away from the graveyard is a nursing home where 17 of the 23 fatalities in the Isle of Man lost their battle against the virus.
The fact that only six deaths have been recorded outside that one nursing home is a measure of how successful the Isle of Man government’s containment measures have been. The testing programme here has been exemplary, with a strong testing capacity being rapidly established on the Island itself, avoiding the delays that sending tests to the UK would have imposed. The total number of people tested currently stands at over 4,000, with 332 confirmed cases and 20 hospital admissions. Hardly any new cases have been recorded in the past week, although around 30 people are still awaiting results.
Two significant factors have made this successful flattening of the curve possible.
The first is the transparency and clarity of messaging from the Government. Every day the Chief Minister and other relevant ministers and medical experts conduct a media briefing, complemented by a constantly updated website. On the day that the first death on the Island was announced, the Governor, the Queen’s representative here, also joined the Chief Minister, with his own message of condolence. Reinforcing the importance of social distancing, the police have arrested violators, with large fines being imposed, and prison sentences of up to six weeks passed on the worst offenders.
The second key contributory factor is the strong sense of community that is possible in a place with a population similar to that of Florida’s Melbourne or Fort Myers. Awareness that breaking the rules could lead to the illness or death of someone you know, or someone your friends know, is a strong incentive for compliance. More positively, younger neighbours who are periodically visiting grocery stores are constantly offering to shop for us. Added to which, many farms, butchers, and other food retailers have quickly developed delivery services.
This week the government introduced a very modest easing of restrictions. The transport links to the UK remain severely curtailed, but returning residents are now allowed to quarantine themselves at home rather than in dedicated housing controlled by the government. Garden centres reopened this week and most retail businesses will be allowed to resume trading next week. Construction and other outdoor trades are now able to return to work, provided that they are able to observe strict social distancing rules while doing so.
Driving to anywhere on the island is now permitted, but the 40 MPH speed limit remains in force, and recreational activities like walking and fishing have also opened up. Outdoor meetings between single family members are now possible, but with all these activities, two metres of separation will continue to be strictly enforced.
With this carefully phased easing of restrictions now cautiously starting, it’s still hard to say where we will be three to six months from now, but it is reassuring that the government has made clear that opening measures will be instantly reversed if there is any sign of a resurgence in infections.
As with everywhere else in the world, the Isle of Man waits anxiously for news of a vaccine.
Tim Cullen MBE is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and a visiting professor at Peking University. He was the founder of the Small Countries Financial Management Centre and is Chairman of the international negotiation teaching and consultancy firm, TCA Ltd. He is the former Chief Spokesman and Director of Information of the World Bank.
This article was written as part of the Addressing Global Crisis Project (AGC), which is run by the University of Central Florida’s Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives (GPII). AGC examines how governments, individually and collectively, deal with pandemics, natural disasters, ecological challenges, and climate change. AGC is organized around five primary pillars: (1) delivery of services and infrastructure; (2) water-energy-food security; (2) governance and politics; (4) economic development; and, (5) national security. Through its global network, AGC facilitates expert discussion and features articles, publications and online content.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Small Countries Financial Management Centre.