- 23 Feb 21
While Ireland remains locked down, the craic is almost back to 90 in the Isle of Man. Stuart Clark discovers how our next-door neighbours have beaten the pandemic – and asks, “Why didn’t Ireland follow their lead?”
While a trip to the local supermarket was about as fun as it got last weekend for most Irish people, a hundred miles off our east coast you could have had dinner, pints, a bop and whatever else might have arisen from a night on the tear.
This Shangri-La is the Isle of Man, the self-governing British Crown dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea which, apart from a minor blip in January, has been Covid-free since last May. How they’ve managed to get it so right is an indictment of how we’ve managed to get it so wrong.
Here to tell us why the Isle of Man’s Tynwald is in the running for the inaugural Hot Press Parliament of the Year Award is Andy Wint, the presenter of Manx Radio’s flagship The Mannin Line current affairs show.
“The reason for the Isle of Man being Covid-free is simple: we don’t let anyone in,” Andy tells us shortly after coming off-air. “Last March when the first cases of Covid were confirmed here, we locked down for two months, with the rule being that only compassionate visitors and essential workers were allowed to enter. At the same time, if you left you couldn’t come back unless you were prepared to go into self-isolation – it was two weeks, now it’s three. Initially you went to a quarantine hotel where you stayed at your own expense and had a test before you went home.
“Isle of Man residents couldn’t leave their homes without a letter identifying them as a key worker,” he continues. “If the police stopped you and you didn’t have one you could be prosecuted. Those same police will turn up at your door and check on you if you’re now self-isolating at home. We’ve had three or four-dozen people go to jail for lockdown infringements so there’s no mucking around. There’s complete public support for that because it works.”
One of those who enjoyed a month’s free board and lodgings courtesy of the Isle of Man Prison Service is 28-year-old Dale McLaughlan who broke Covid laws by jet skiing over to the Isle of Man from North Ayrshire in Scotland to see his girlfriend. His plea that “I did it for love; it could be called a crime of passion” cut zero mustard with Deputy High Bailiff Christopher Arrowsmith who condemned his “deliberate and intentional attempt to circumnavigate” the border restrictions.
“We had a bunch of welders come over from the UK to work on one of the heritage railways here,” Andy resumes. “Instead of going straight from the boat to their isolation hotel they were spotted in Tesco, got picked up and went to jail for two weeks. They had their masks on and stuck out like a sore thumb because we haven’t been wearing them here for months.”
Whichever way the numbers are crunched, the Isle of Man’s hardline – some would say draconian – approach has worked.
“We’ve had 400 cases and 25 deaths, most of which were in the one care home where the virus tragically ran riot,” Andy says before going on to note that: “We’re a small island of 85,000 people but New Zealand, two islands with a combined population of 4.9 million, responded pretty much the same way we did and is now Covid-free too.”
What a shame that another island nation of 4.9m wasn’t savvy enough to do the same. To be fair to the Irish government, the Isle of Man’s response was made easier by them not having to follow EU protocols – they declined to join along with the UK in 1975 and were thusly spared the agony of Brexit – and their main industries, financial services and online gaming, being relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Grumbles from the tourist sector, which accounts for around 17% of the island’s earnings, were quickly addressed.
“The government are paying hotels up to £40 per room per night just to keep open,” Andy resumes. “They simultaneously launched a big campaign encouraging people to staycation. Towards the end of last year you couldn’t get a yurt on the island for love nor money. You had people in the middle of December in hot tubs drinking champagne. And then there was the air corridor between here and Guernsey, which was also Covid-free.”
Rub it in why don’t you? While Micheál Martin was desperate not to be the Grinch who cancelled Christmas, his Chief Minister counterpart, Roger Quayle, wasn’t prepared to risk all of the island’s good work for the sake of everybody being sat round the festive dinner table.
“There was talk before Christmas of them letting students who’d been studying in the UK back in, and allowing teachers from the UK working here to go home and see their families,” Andy explains. “Those numbers ended up being limited, but even so come early January we had four new cases – all of them involving people in self-isolation who’d come back from Britain – and went into ‘circuit breaker’ hard lockdown for three weeks. Up till then we’d been 107 days without a single case.”
Talking after the end of that ‘circuit breaker’, the Chief Minister said: “We have a government policy of eradication of COVID, not living with it. It’s down to the great Manx public that we find ourselves in this fortunate position again. They’ve been very supportive, patriotic and follow the rules. We have had 20 days now without any unexplained community cases. The only cases we’ve had recently have been related to travel.”
The Isle of Man isn’t resting on its Covid-free laurels, though, with a vaccine roll-out rate that again puts Ireland to shame.
“Our issue,” Andy concludes, “is overwhelming the health system here. There’s only one hospital on the Isle of Man, which has 15-20 ICU beds. Just one of them’s taken up at the moment, but we have to keep the numbers down. They’ve had the carpenters out and converted the airport departures hall into a vaccination hub. We’ve both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, which has so far been given to 12,000 people. A letter arrives telling you to turn up no earlier than ten minutes before your alloted time, you get your jab and off you go. I can wander downtown now with no mask, get a coffee or a pint and not even think about Covid. It’s a case of politicians having the will and the public rowing in behind them.”