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22 March 2020

In Italy, people are stunned by the UK government’s complacent response to coronavirus

As Italian deaths reach 4,825, there is anger and incredulity in the country at the behaviour of Boris Johnson.

By Laura Parker

“You’ll be better off here”, my (Italian) husband insisted – “here at least we’re taking it seriously”. I am in shutdown – there are no locks, this too remains a free country – not in south London but in the north-western Italian province of Cuneo. 

At the supermarket last week I chatted, at the prescribed distance, with the gloved and masked security guard. As he let in four customers at a time, Vittorio was determined nobody would catch the virus on his watch. An orderly wait was followed by a calm walk down aisles full of goods but almost empty of people. This contrasted with my mother’s reports from her northern English town; shoppers too young to remember Supermarket Sweep acting as if competing in it. 

If supermarket entry were conditional upon reading The Post, my daily email update, perhaps some would think more and go out and hoard less. Saturday 21 March: 793 new Italian deaths from Covid-19, the highest daily increase yet, making a total of 4,825 victims. But nobody here believes the numbers are correct – how can they be when so many have died behind doors long since closed? Testing the living is challenge enough. 

Amid the anguish, sheets hang as hopeful flags from windows, rainbows painted on them by school children, some of whom in Lombardy have already finished their fourth week of quarantine: “#AndraTuttoBene” – “#Everything’sGoingToBeAlright”. Video pleas of doctors and mayors from the unfolding tragedy’s epicentre in Bergamo are juxtaposed in the viral online world with morale-boosting singalongs from balconies across Italy. The “#IoRestoACasa” – “#I’mStayingIn” – campaign has been endorsed by footballers, actors, and ballerinas from La Scala.

There is humour too, though if it is of the studio audience kind, a notice in the corner of the TV screen explains the show was recorded before social distancing rules were introduced. And this humour has its limits, as TV doctor Christian Jessen learned when his comments about coronavirus being an excuse for Italians to “have a long siesta” were met with outrage. 

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Because Italians are angry. They are angry their doctors are dying, that their hospitals are under-equipped and, most of all, angry they did not understand sooner. And there has been a mixture of widespread incredulity and anger at the UK’s leaders. To suggest, as Boris Johnson has repeatedly, that foregoing a pint in the pub is a “sacrifice” is seen as almost mocking the much greater sacrifices which Italians understand will be made. None can fathom why the UK has been seemingly determined to ignore the lessons which they have so painfully learnt. 

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Seeking to vaunt his liberal credentials whilst exposing his worst libertarian instincts, Johnson’s approach was interpreted by many Italians to mean the lessons they have learnt don’t, in fact, count. That they, themselves, don’t really count. “I suppose we are now seeing you do what we did – because when this first came out of China, we also thought ‘it can’t happen to us, we’re not like them.’ In the end, it’s just racism. If China had been Norway, or Italy were Canada…” mused my husband. 

For my friend Andrea Pisauro (a researcher in psychology at the University of Oxford) “Johnson looked to all of us very much like Trump in his reaction to this crisis. He should have listened to the Italians who were reporting the dramatic situation in many Italian provinces”. As of over 600 scientists who called on the UK government to introduce social distancing measures earlier, Andrea noted with sad frustration that the situation in Italian hospitals “spiralled out of control despite the fact Italy has more critical care beds than the UK and the OECD scores Lombardy 9.9/10 for health” – which is higher than London (8.7/10).

None of this is to suggest Italians believe their own government is flawless. Having been credited with handling coronavirus well, prime minister Giuseppe Conte and the centre-left Democratic Party are polling well; progressives are relieved they, not the nationalist xenophobe Matteo Salvini, are at the helm.  But the roots of Italian scepticism of politicians and public institutions run deep. Official statistics are not trusted at the best of times, while huge questions remain unanswered about how families and businesses will cope financially. 

But I have not heard any Italian suggest their government’s main aim is anything other than to save as many lives as possible – whilst many Italian commentators have been highly critical of the UK for not making this its overarching goal. As the author Roberto Buffagni observed (, 14 March), the strategy first adopted by countries was a clear indicator “of the way in which they understand the national interest and priorities”; the UK’s initial strategy had at its core “a cost benefit calculation and conscious decision to sacrifice part of the population”. 

Alarmed by Britain’s seeming callousness and complacency, it is unsurprising that it is not the UK that ordinary Italians look to for inspiration. On news programmes, updates from Germany, Spain and South Korea are read out before those on the UK. In recent days, Britain has been even further down the bulletins, behind equipment shipments and doctors to Italy from China, as well as medics from Cuba and Venezuela. 

Alongside these powerful acts of international solidarity, it is clear Italy’s ambitions for the UK are more modest. My friends and family, segregated across northern Italy, take no pride in their country being the global Covid-19 disaster benchmark. This beautiful country, which brought the world some of its finest art, food and music, now wants, above all, for others to show solidarity by listening to its experience. Then there might be a greater chance that, even if everything will not be alright, it could at least be better. 

Laura Parker is former national coordinator of Momentum