By Charles Coles (report and commentary)
In 2017 BBC4 in the UK invited the residents of Haslemere in Surrey to download an app to their smartphone. The purpose? To track everyone’s movements across the town in a ‘track and trace’ exercise to simulate how a virus might spread.
The BBC website that promoted the experiment is still live and you can see it here (The Buzz has a PDF just in case).
The BBC site states: “If you live or work in Haslemere, or even just pop in to shop, you can play a vital role in the BBC Pandemic experiment.
“No matter your age, if you have a smartphone, we would like you to take part. All you have to do is download the Pandemic app and select the “Haslemere Outbreak” option.
“Then, from Thursday 12th October 2017, for three days – and those three days only – the app will collect GPS data of your movements. All data will be made anonymous to protect your identity and a team from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will use it to predict how a flu outbreak might spread across the town – and what can be done to stop it.”
According to the BBC documentary that followed in 2018, a TV presenter was patient zero and the programme explored how a virus could have been transmitted from person-to-person across the town.
Now, here is the surprising part…. Having set up the whole experiment in the little town of Haslemere in 2017, a few years later the very first outbreak of covid-19 in the UK happened in (drum roll please): Haslemere!
And the name of the first person in the UK known to have the deadly virus on 28 February 2020 was Haslemere resident Patricia Hingston, now aged 88, who told her local newspaper (Surrey Live) – one year later – that she felt as though she was at the “epicentre of the virus” after the first positive case was confirmed.
So, in 2017 there was a ‘track and trace’ smartphone app, the location of the experiment – one of 1,186 towns in the UK – came to be the very place the real outbreak happened, and the elderly lady who caught covid-19 lived.
Finally, if the purpose of the experiment was to find ways to stop a virus spreading, then the experiment failed.