Watching the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK from Italy was like looking into a parallel universe.
As someone with a dual British and Italian identity, it was also a defining moment for my relationship with the UK.
On March 9th, 2020, Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the first nationwide lockdown. The message of his historic ‘Io Resto a Casa’ (‘I’m staying home’) speech was clear: public health comes before other interests, as important as they may be.
And we stayed home. The Great Italian Bake-Off had begun.
As the crisis worsened in other countries, Britons living in Italy – and Italians living in Britain – looked at the UK’s response and thought: what are they waiting for?
To our frustration, the recent Commons report on the UK’s handling of the first wave of the pandemic only told those of us with connections to both countries what we already knew. The UK hadn’t learned from Italy’s experience.
Unsurprisingly, the Commons report called the UK’s government decisions on lockdowns and social distancing in the early weeks of the pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”.
It was a delay that cost thousands of lives.
Italy battled the pandemic with little data. But crucially, Italian officials drilled the message, quite literally, home: the situation is serious and there is no time to waste.
By comparison, the UK’s attitude – despite by then having access to data from China, the WHO and Italy – was staggering.
The Commons report brings the bewilderment we felt at the time into clear focus.
On January 31st 2020, then-Health Minister Matt Hancock was informed by experts that a worst-case scenario would cause 820,000 deaths.
The same week Italy locked down, the numbers in the UK started to align with this worst-case scenario. Despite the alarming data, Britain’s lockdown plan was yet to be formulated.
The same day, famed TV doctor Christian Jessen was forced to issue a public apology after comparing Covid-19 to the flu and accusing Italians of using lockdown as an excuse for a “siesta”.
Faced with such widespread mixed messaging, it’s little wonder the British public appeared largely oblivious to the looming danger.
As the military was called in to help with Bergamo’s overflowing morgues on March 18th, British acquaintances happily announced on social media that they were not closing shop.
Watching the UK’s response to Covid from Italy was like watching a drunk friend get behind the wheel of their car. Unfortunately, there was no snatching the keys out of their hands and calling a taxi.
Sharon Braithwaite, a British-Italian journalist living in London, says that, as people stocked up on pasta and toilet paper, she too asked: ”when will the (UK) government do something concrete?’.
It was frustrating – and at times insulting – for those of us with connections to both countries to hear how the Italian crisis was being narrated in Britain.
A great deal of myths have been used to justify why Italy was so badly affected. Some blamed multi-generational families living under the same roof, while others pointed the finger at the Italian practice of kissing on the cheek. Though multigenerational families are more common in Italy than they are in the UK, the set-up is not so widespread that it could explain the overfilled morgues.
Perhaps most insidious of all were the comments made about Italy’s National Health System.
In one example, Dr Zoe Williams, a family doctor and media personality, reassured the public by saying in an interview on This Morning – a staple of British daytime TV – that ‘[the British] healthcare system is very different to Italy’.
Where the difference lies is unclear: both countries fall under the same universal healthcare model, even though Italy’s is highly decentralised, leaving health care management to individual regions.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Italian health care system is internationally well-regarded and is often ranked as one of the best in the world.
And the pandemic first hit (and overwhelmed) northern Italian regions widely regarded as having the best healthcare in the country.
Seeing Italy’s flagship hospitals in the wealthy region of Lombardy under tremendous strain should have been a further alarm bell.
If Italians have the second-highest life expectancy in Europe (83.1 years, second only to Spain) the healthcare system is to thank.
During the British government’s own enquiry, Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England, blamed “groupthink” and “British exceptionalism” for the fact British experts did not believe something like SARS could ever get from Asia to the UK.
As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said: the UK “missed an opportunity to prepare during the first months of 2020”.
This had long been apparent to many in Italy. As someone with dual British and Italian identity, the pandemic, paired with the chaos created by Brexit, is transforming my relationship with Britain.
No longer the country of common sense and opportunity, Britain seems like a land consumed by isolationism and exceptionalism – an issue which has now engulfed public health.
The UK now has among the highest infection rates in the world, with 45,000 new cases being reported in a single day. The death toll is rising.
In Italy, for now the health situation remains largely under control. The government and the majority of people remain cautious.
In some ways, nothing has changed.
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