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The tiny island of Sark, in the middle of the English Channel, has closed up shop. After announcing on Sunday that all passenger boats would be suspended, the island’s “Pandemic Emergency Committee” released a statement late on Tuesday saying the island was going into full lockdown:

At midnight tonight 24th March all non-essential work must cease unless it can be carried out from home. In the case of emergency work, please contact the Constable in advance.

Everybody except essential workers MUST REMAIN AT HOME except for two hours of exercise each day. To minimise the potential spread of the virus DO NOT VISIT OTHER HOUSEHOLDS.

The last passenger boat will be tomorrow, Wednesday 25th, after that only cargo boats will operate unless in the case of medical emergencies and essential appointments as approved by the Doctor. Private boat trips to the other Islands are prohibited.

THESE REGULATIONS ARE LEGALLY ENFORCEABLE UNDER BAILIWICK LAW.

The royal fief, which can only be accessed by ferry, from Guernsey, will still get its twice-weekly deliveries of post, food, and diesel (not for cars, of which there are none, but for tractors, of which there are many, and for converting into electricity). But shops will be closed -- food will only be purchasable by delivery -- and the island will have no visitors.

For a semi-feudal island with an area of just over two square miles, a population of about 400 people, and the only way of getting around being tractor, bicycle or horse-and-carriage, being somewhat cut off from the rest of the world is not uncommon.

Just before the lockdown on Tuesday, we spoke to Christopher Beaumont, the island’s hereditary“seigneur”, effectively its head of state, who told us that the islanders had been pretty much carrying on as normal:

To be honest, it’s much the same as always, except no visitors. Not that we’d be having that many at this time of year anyway because it’s not the school holidays, but we would have seen a trickle. 

Although Sark has had no confirmed cases of coronavirus yet, it’s had a scare. The week before last, a man who came from the UK to fix the church clock was showing some symptoms, so he was asked to quarantine himself for 14 days in the bed and breakfast he was staying at, the Clos Princess, which happens to be where Alphaville stayed during our somewhat infamous trip to the island last year. The B&B’s unlucky owner, Linda Williams, was also asked to self-quarantine. 

But one wonders how long the island will manage to stay free of the virus, which has now spread into 196 of the world’s 251 countries and territories, according to Worldometer, a website that collates data on Covid-19.

On Wednesday, the 4pm cargo ferry will be allowed to bring over some “Sarkees” who can prove they are residents of the island, which will include children attending boarding school on the mainland and university students whose educational institutions have been closed down (including the seigneur’s son).

Alongside the normal “tractor-bus” that greets passengers from the ferry and carries them up the island’s steep cliffs (which the locals call the “toast rack”), there will also be one of the island’s two “tractor-ambulances”, which will be bringing anyone with symptoms to somewhere they can quarantine themselves for two weeks. There will be no such measures in place for the potentially asymptomatic who, as we know, can nevertheless be carriers. 

And given that Sark’s demographic make-up is that of an inverted pyramid, with a great number of old and retired people, one can imagine that if the virus does hit the island, things will be tricky. There is just one GP on Sark, and the nearest hospital is on Guernsey, ten miles away on often choppy waters. 

Alphaville friend Chris Cook, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College London who has been working with Sark to come up with solutions for the island’s longstanding energy crisis, has been stuck on the island since the weekend. He will, however, be allowed to take the same cargo boat that is carrying the final load of passengers to Sark on Wednesday afternoon, to return to Guernsey.

Being stuck on a little island with no cars or streetlights, pre-lockdown, doesn’t sound too bad, if you ask us. This is the picture Chris sent us from Little Sark, the peninsula at the southern end of the island, showing Brecqhou, the island owned by the billionaire Barclay Brothers (if you squint hard enough you can just about make out what appears to be the Barclays’ mock-Gothic castle toward the left of the shot):

We don’t know for sure who is currently on Brecqhou, but we do understand that the brothers have been practising social distancing for quite some time now. (Sir Frederick has not visited the 60-room castle on the private island for years, though Sir David is still understood to live there.) The seigneur, however, told us he heard a Barclay helicopter on Tuesday morning.

Trying to enforce the new measures that have been ordered by the bailiwick of Guernsey, of which Sark is a part and whose main island has had at least 18 confirmed cases so far, should be an interesting phenomenon to observe, given that Sark has no full-time police.

Instead, it has one voluntary constable and an assistant, the “vingtenier”, who are both allowed to arrest people and sling them into the world’s tiniest prison, shown below. (They are also allowed to give people speeding tickets for driving tractors at more than 10 miles an hour, or electric buggies at more than 8 miles an hour.)

But Victoria Stamps, an electronics and software engineer who moved to Sark about a year ago after reading Alphaville’s coverage of it (really!), reckons that what will really scare people into behaving properly is the fact that everybody knows everybody else’s business:

People are going to know that so and so has just come back from the UK or France or whatever, so I think it’s going to one of these things that’s gonna be community policing where people are going to be saying: ‘Well actually you shouldn’t be out!” 

One observes the same kind of community policing philosophy in the way that bicycles are left never locked up. Where, after all, are you gon’ run? And this mentality is probably also the reason that there has not been any stockpiling on Sark. 

The last time the island was more or less closed off was during World War II, during the Nazis’ occupation of the island between 1940 and 1945, when the Dame of Sark (from whom the seigneur is descended) famously refused to evacuate the island. But even then Sark was not completely cut off. As the seigneur, whose visitor book dates back to pre-WWII days, told us:

Even when the occupation was on, Sark got visitors — albeit mainly German soldiers or officials in Guernsey, as my visitor book is testament to. So it hasn’t happened before.

But there’s a stoic attitude here; people are just getting on with their lives. 

Related links:
Alphaville spent 36 hours on the island of Sark. Here's how it went. - FT Alphaville 
Sark: how electricity sparked Channel island crisis - FT 

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