OPINION: Watching from Italy we always knew UK’s Covid response was a ‘failure’

The town of Codogno, Lombardy, was locked down first after becoming the epicentre of the first known Covid outbreak in Italy, and Europe.
The town of Codogno, Lombardy, was locked down on February 23rd 2020 after becoming the epicentre of the first known Covid outbreak in Italy, and Europe. Photo: Miguel MEDINA/AFP
Watching the UK's response to Covid from Italy was like watching a drunk friend get behind the wheel of their car, writes British-Italian journalist Adriana Urbano.

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.

SEE ALSO: 19 unforgettable photos from a year of strict Covid lockdowns in Italy

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.

READ ALSO: Eight things the Covid crisis has taught us about Italy

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.

READ ALSO: What can Italy teach the rest of the world about health?

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.

Do you agree or disagree with the writer of this opinion piece? Please share your own views with us in the comments section below.


Member comments

  1. Watching what unfolded in Italy was devastating and the whole world didn’t really take heed, many countries waited until covid hit their doorstep. That being said, the UK lack of response was incomprehensible, then include Boris not even bothering to turn up to five covid meetings, it says a lot about the way he viewed the virus. The UK governments cavalier attitude toward COVID-19, was irresponsible and it is damning that so many people paid with their lives and health.

  2. Looking at the UK numbers and slow booster roll-out, the poor response continues. I was going back for a wedding in February, but not with the expected UK cases over the Winter.

  3. I’m British, living in Italy and, while I share many of the sentiments expressed in this article, I do wonder if we might be due our own spike in the coming weeks; not least due to the waning of vaccine protection (as observed also in Israel) and a general, creeping complacency as things begin to move indoors again.

    I’m certainly no apologist for the embarrassment of a government currently in situ over there – and believe there ought to be consequences for the appalling manner in which they’ve handled the pandemic – but I do wonder what’s in store for us in the immediate future too. This isn’t over yet anywhere, unfortunately…

    But yes, the messaging from those in charge could barely have been different and, while it sadly won’t ever happen, the current UK administration should really be under investigation for their appalling conduct throughout.

  4. Italy actually has a worse death rate per million than the UK so the whole basis for this article is flawed. Sweden, with no lockdowns has a far lower death rate than both countries. There is no correlation between deaths and lockdown stringency across the world so the automatic assumption that lockdowns reduce deaths is also flawed. It is unfortunate that an unelected Italian Prime Minister copied a Chinese Communist Party response to the virus and did not follow the pandemic plans laid out by most democratic nations and the WHO. It is hugely unfortunate that other nations then copied Italy rather than protecting their vulnerable.

    1. I think the difference between 2.01% (death rate per million in the U.K.) and 2.18% (same death rate in Italy) is not statistically relevant. To all intents and purposes, the death rate in both countries is the same. The number of cases however, is not. In the U.K., very few people are still wearing masks indoors, children are not required to wear masks in schools and even in places like airports, there is little social distancing and limited mask wearing. You cannot explain the number of cases either by testing as although the U.K. has done twice as many tests, the multiple of cases is far more than x2. 50,000 new cases daily in the U.K. versus 3000 in Italy.
      Similarly, there is enormous free testing available in Italy and compulsory tests cost merely €25 per head or they are free. Not the crippling £80 per head the U.K. is charging. Testing is also carried out by bona fide clinics, not some of the scandalous sham organisations, the U.K. government has seen fit to employ. Yes, I was several months behind my British friends getting my own vaccination, but my 15 year old was vaccinated months before the British kids of similar age were. My parents have received their booster around the same time as their U.K. equivalents and the overall vaccination rate is very similar.

      Overall, I think the healthcare system here is as good or better. Operations for friends of mine were carried out within 2-3 months of their being told they needed an operation here in Italy. My mother in law in the U.K. is still waiting after 2 years.

      1. Dear Mairi

        Thank you for replying to my post. I love Italy and its people and I spend as much time as I can in my place there. But as someone born in New Zealand and who grew up in the UK and Greece, before my parents moved to Milan, I have watched supposedly democratic nations strip their citizens of their rights and impose appalling cruelties on them. (Banning family from seeing dying relatives and from comforting the bereaved at funerals, among many other abuses.) Please note how things have been in Melbourne. There are very few democratic countries which did not resort to autocratic measures. They not only ignored the established science, they actually carried out most of the policies that were specifically warned against. In short – they panicked. Britain has been one of those countries that failed its people in this manner. It also exaggerated its death toll in order to frighten its people into accepting restrictions. (A covid death is anyone who dies within 28 days of a positive test, so someone who was asymptomatic and tests positive but gets run over by a bus three weeks later is still a ‘covid death’). And it is estimated that 25% of covid ‘hospital admissions’ are not actually admitted for covid, they just catch it while there. Entire books have now been written about the UK’s use of fear to manipulate its people. Positive tests though, are relatively unimportant, and a previous post here points out the amount of testing that goes on in the UK. But most of these ‘cases’ in the UK are unvaccinated children for whom the consequences are zero. At least the UK is having a discussion about whether it’s ethical to vaccinate children. Perhaps Italy should be having a discussion about this too as the risk to children from the vaccines is considered to be perhaps greater than the risk of the disease (although still low).

        Italy has also widely embraced vaccination passports. But in a democracy should one have to declare one’s medical status? In the UK the Police cannot even demand someone identify themselves immediately. We do not have to carry ID cards. The Police don’t have checkpoints on the roads. In Britain Common Law says that a citizen can do anything unless it is specifically prohibited by law whereas Roman/Napoleonic Law says the exact opposite. This explains something of the character of the UK response to Covid.

        It has been common throughout Europe to criticise Britain since Brexit. Perhaps this is just nations being defensive as if Britain rejected Europe as a whole. But this is entirely wrong. Britons love Europe, they just didn’t like the EU Commission and Parliament, they didn’t see it as democratic. And in pressing ahead with Brexit the British people showed that their decision would stand and refused to be bullied by other national leaders, a significant number of their own ‘elite’, their mainstream media and even many of their own politicians. Although many democratic freedoms were trampled on during lockdowns the Police were not heavy handed and many restrictions were less severe than for friends on the continent (Italy made its citizens wear masks outdoors, which by any reading of the science is complete madness).

        Britain, and most others, ‘learned’ the wrong lesson from Italy. It is now trying ‘to live with Covid’. This is an honourable aim, and some of our European friends should try to stop being anti British now and join us in reestablishing democratic law.

        Best wishes
        John Clezy

  5. I rank Conte’s decision as one of the bravest political decisions I’ve seen in my lifetime. He showed courage and leadership and made it a lot, lot easier for the rest of Europe.

    As an expat Brit living in Italy I’m deeply ashamed and embarrassed by the continuing deep seated arrogance and superiority complex that emanates from Downing Street. Every policy or initiative has to be labelled “World beating” when little actually ever is.

  6. Really super disappointed with this article in part its flimsy on the whole its flawed. If Italy had managed to complete the same amount of testing the UK has you would then be able to compare light with light. March to Sept UK 19.7 million Italy 10 million at one point the UK had done more testing than the whole of Europe.
    I moved to Italy with my wife only a few weeks before Covid hit in the Feb/ March of 2020 although both of us where convinced we had mild symptoms of Covid from October 2019 when we spent a month here on final negotiations for our property. We both ended up back in the UK very ill with raspatory problems and no idea what it was. That aside we moved here for one reason only “The way of life” and “the beautiful Italian people” and being half Italian i always wanted to follow in my fathers footsteps. When you are looking for comparisons on countries handling of the pandemic look at the vaccination programme. As i was still registered with NHS i could have had my first vaccine in the UK in February instead i opted to wait for the Italian programme. It was June before i received my first jab and i had to drive 1 hour and 30 minutes to get it. My 3 children in the UK all under 30 had already received the vaccine before i had. Dont get me wrong driving aside i praised the red cross here for there efficiency and skill on the day it was well organised.
    Having spoke with many Italians in my village and my family of cousins and Aunts i dont see any Italians praising the way Conte or Draghi has handled this and when i see articles of local mayors lowering the actual death figures so they dont end up in lockdown you really have to wonder if i have moved to a third world country. When Italians couldn’t go to work because of Covid how much support did they get of the Italian government. From what i have been told from all the workers I know here “NOTHING”. Compare that to the UK 80% of your salary.
    I dont think any one country has got it right first time but i do really feel for the Italian people who have definitely been short changed by the Italian government which still seems hell bent on destroying the economy.
    Lets hope we have a better 2022 with a full return to normality

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