05 May 2020

Isle of Wight update: Forget the coronavirus app trial, the only story in town is the 'Yarmouth cat killer' mystery

The Isle of Wight - a picturesque haven off the south coast of England - has found itself at the cutting edge of the national fight against coronavirus, as it becomes the trial location for the Government's contact tracing app. But it's not sure why.

Among the population of around 140,000, for whom ‘WhatsApp’ might as well be called ‘What’s that,' there are concerns over their technological credentials to be ‘guinea pigs' and a general bemusement based on a lack of information as to what it is they are actually being asked to do.

And in any case, there are more pressing matters gripping the island, to wit fears that a ‘Yarmouth cat killer' is on the loose.

Henry is a PhD student working in innate immunity. He's actually only on the island because he returned to be with his family for the lockdown, but his specialisation is nothing if not topical, and he fills his time remotely reviewing coronavirus literature.

The young scientist was able to give Newschain a sense of the mood on the ground, ie how even those who are more clued up than their ‘elderly’ island neighbours are struggling with the lack of information, and how the likely effectiveness of an app in a place with ‘such rubbish signal', appeared to have been overlooked.

“We have literally been told absolutely nothing about it,” said the 25 year-old.

"The only way I know anything is from what I've seen on the news and through the TV and that seems pretty common as far as I know.

“Apparently we're meant to get a letter but no one's got one of those yet, so who even knows,” he added.

“We've been told we're the guinea pigs and that's about it, but, as with most things on the Isle of Wight, gossip spreads faster than the virus, so everyone is phoning each other about it."

And that is ‘phoning’ as in landline.

Asked if the trial had set WhatsApp groups buzzing, he laughed: "This is going to be the real issue with the app, no one actually has things like WhatsApp groups because we haven’t reached that level of technology yet.

“The only way gossip spreads and people talk is via old school landlines, so other than the news I only know what all the island mums have been telling each other!” he added.

“So now we're all waiting for the much-anticipated letter because we're that old-fashioned that it's the only way they seem to communicate with us, so no, I've got no idea how an app is going to go down.

As a less densely populated town, Yarmouth may not be representative (Visit Isle of Wight)

“I think if everyone used it, it would be really useful, but my worry is that the Isle of Wight is not the correct place to trial it.”

While much of the island is rich with clear green pastures, there is one large town that is more densely populated than much of the surrounding areas and it is here that Henry believes the app may earn its spurs.

“We have one fairly metropolitan town, Newport,” he said. "There's more young people there and it's far more populated so everyone there would have smartphones.

“A lot of people around the island are not really leaving their house and definitely won't be using smartphones so I don't see how they're going to manage that,” he added.

“If you localise the study to Newport the data will be much more useful whereas if you take the geography of the island as a whole and look at the majority of the population here, it won’t really work.”

Newport is the most densely populated city on the island (Visit Isle of Wight)

For Henry, the strength of the app rests in its ability to predict rather than detect.

“It can help predict in real time where the high transmission rates are,” he said, “which is great in order to look at how to react and measures like lockdown that can be put in place in certain areas in advance of a spike." 

He said in a community that had seen just 35 Covid-19 deaths, he'd gathered mixed views about the island's new-found role.

“For some people they're really excited by the idea that we are at the forefront of everything and have some huge kudos for testing the app for the rest of the country,” he said.

“But there's also other people who are convinced that we are just guinea pigs for the government and the sky is falling in because they are just testing it on us and we are all going to die, so it's quite confusing really.

The app will reach the people of the Isle of Wight on Thursday (PA Images) (PA Media)

"And then you've also got the worrying thing that some people assume that because we've got the app, that means we're all coming out of lockdown earlier than everyone else.

“This is worrying because people might then just start setting off and going about their normal life which is definitely not what the app is meant to be doing and they need to know that's not the case." 

But enough of all  this, and back to that Yarmouth cat ‘thing’.

“Currently the biggest worry in Yarmouth, bigger than the coronavirus, or the app, is that someone decapitated a cat and threw it into someone else’s garden,” he said.

The cat's remains were found in a garden on The Mill Road in Yarmouth (facebook)

“The police found the cat, as well as a duck and a pigeon in the local area, so people are now incredibly concerned that the Croydon cat killer has come across on the ferry and has become ‘the Yarmouth cat killer'.

“Some even believe the cat's death, the 5G conspiracy and coronavirus are all linked," he added.

"An autopsy concluded the cat definitely had its head chopped off by a human and, because the body and not the head were found in the garden, it’s obviously been done in a deliberate manner.

“So that’s what everyone is quite rightly concerned about and we need to stop it going any further," he added. “We are more concerned about the cat than the app."

And that, as far as the trial is concerned, puts the cat among the guinea-pigs.

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