He was responding to criticism that the UK's contact tracing and testing programme is not working well enough in the face of a surge in cases of Covid-19.
Opposition Labour MP Ben Bradshaw asked the prime minister if “the reason Germany and Italy have far lower Covid rates than us” is because their services work.
Johnson rejected his argument, adding: “Actually there is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world, that is that our country is a freedom-loving country.”
“If you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years, virtually every advance from free speech to democracy has come from this country. And it is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that it is necessary.”
Social media users in the UK, Italy and elsewhere responded to Johnson's words with disbelief and mockery.
The UK in March: “the outbreak is so bad in Italy because those Italians can't follow rules”
UK in Sept: “You can't expect people in the UK to follow rules like the Italians did! ” ?
— Clare Speak (@ClareinItaly) September 22, 2020
The Conservative leader was in the House of Commons to set out new restrictions to deal with a recent surge in virus cases in the UK.
The UK is currently reporting around 4,000 new cases a day, while the figure in Italy is around 1,500.
Italy was the first country outside China to face a major coronavirus outbreak, but has recently managed to keep infection rates relatively low compared to
Spain, France and Britain.
Experts in Italy credit the relatively low number of cases to the country's “timely, rigorous and prolonged lockdown”, as well as a functioning test-and-trace system.
Lockdown “worked better here in Italy than in other countries that have hesitated to close, closed less, and reopened earlier,” Dr Nino Cartabellotta, a leading Italian public health expert, professor, and president of Gimbe, Italy's Group for Evidence-based Medicine.
“There is no evidence that individual and social behaviours like the use of masks, social distancing, or no gatherings, have been better in Italy than elsewhere,” he told The Local.