When the government first chose the Isle of Wight to pilot its coronavirus contact-tracer app, I figured that made sense. They needed somewhere contained, like an island. They needed somewhere without too many people and with a high level of civic compliance. More importantly, they needed somewhere that was a bit like the 1950s, to use as a nursery slope. Look, I’ve never designed an app, so don’t listen to me. But I can imagine, for its baby steps, you’d want to use a cohort of people who could at least name and locate their contacts, who hadn’t been on the tube recently, or in a nightclub, or to a rugby match.
In fact, there is a train on the island; it has four carriages and six stops, but the fullest and most hectic I’ve ever seen it was when one person had a dinghy they weren’t minded to deflate. So, basically, the Isle of Wight is perfect. One professor of global public health, David McCoy, questioned the choice for this exact reason, calling the island an odd selection, “especially during lockdown – it’s a relatively closed community with lots of physical distancing between strangers”. But the plan was never to find a “typical” English region to practise on. Rather, it was to seed public acceptance for voluntarily telling the government every time you had a sore throat. If you’re going to get that anywhere, it’ll be in a small place where everyone knows each other. Or maybe not, since it didn’t work. But we’ll get to that.
I first came to the Isle of Wight on someone else’s field trip, and if I’d been listening for one second, I’d be able to tell you a hell of a lot about its geomorphology. As it is, all I can say is that an amateur fossil-hunter just discovered a new kind of dinosaur in Shanklin. But that’s a medium-length story for another day. I love the Isle of Wight, for a million reasons, but really one: it seems to actively want you to have a good time.
I don’t want to kick the industry of leisure travel while it’s down, but the global business model is to wait for parents to have no choice over their dates, and then absolutely rinse them. Flights do it, hotels do it, everyone does it: theme parks, ice-cream vans, helium-balloon vendors, purveyors of low-quality rubber shoes near stony beaches. “Ah, madam, it’s August, you say you’d like these items? That’ll be £175, please. I hear you’d like two Capri Suns as well, and you also need a sunhat? What say we just forget money, and start trading in organs?”
Not on the Isle of Wight. From the moment you nearly miss the ferry, but they try to get you on anyway, you notice the difference. It’s long since the kids have been in any way interested in a helium balloon, but I still get a kick from how reasonably priced they are there. I love it when an offspring says a thing like, “That five-person sea kayak looks fun, shall we see if we can rent one?” And being able to say “maybe” and mean it, rather than, “Maybe … look over there! There’s a dog on a surfboard!”
Previously, I always put it down to the old-fashioned values of decency and compassion, but also to the fact that it’s never that full. Until 2020, the year when everybody who would normally be in Spain, plus everyone who would normally be in France, plus everyone who vowed never to holiday in the UK again since it rained every day in Wales in 1992, has come to the Isle of Wight at once. And I don’t know that from the traffic, or the shops – which are socially distanced anyway – or from the beaches (which are nothing like Bournemouth), or even the tourist board, but from the many overheard conversations. “Wait, the Olympic toboggan ride is 50p?” “Is this just the drinks? Do I go somewhere separate to pay for the tuna sandwich?” Last night I saw two couples forge an actual friendship from the fact that each got two pints of Heineken and a giant pretzel, and still got change from a tenner – not just a bit of change, a lot of change. And OK, it was happy hour, and maybe half the pretzel came direct from the chancellor, but it sparked such euphoria that they sort of agreed to meet up when they got back to Sutton.
It is no longer a small island where everyone knows each other; it’s a small island packed with strangers maintaining as much physical distance as anyone can when they’re so happy with the cost of a slice of sponge that they just entered a guess-the-sweets-in-the-jar competition for kicks, and won.
So obviously this is the exact moment that Matt Hancock decides to relaunch the contact tracer app – which never worked in the first place, and which never made it into the track-and-trace policy for England precisely because it never worked – in exactly the same place. “This place has never been so topical,” I remarked to the woman in the Seapot, who had just sorted me out with four delicious hot dogs that cost less than dog treats, and she thought I said tropical, and now that she mentions it, that too.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist