How did Italy get its initial response to coronavirus so wrong? 

Britons, brace yourselves. The scenes I have witnessed unfolding here in Italy could, sooner or later, be coming your way.

Soldiers and policemen patrolling the streets. Food stores with empty shelves and only three people allowed in at a time. Flights cancelled and police checks at railway stations to ensure your travel is absolutely necessary.

Too late, some say. Too much, say others. Whatever your take, as of yesterday, this was the reality for 60 million people living in Italy.

The Piazza del Duomo in Florence, pictured, was unusually quiet after the Italian government imposed a curfew and an unprecedented lockdown to help battle coronavirus

The Piazza del Duomo in Florence, pictured, was unusually quiet after the Italian government imposed a curfew and an unprecedented lockdown to help battle coronavirus

The Piazza del Duomo in Florence, pictured, was unusually quiet after the Italian government imposed a curfew and an unprecedented lockdown to help battle coronavirus

Everywhere, churches, museums, shopping malls and football stadiums are all shut

Everywhere, churches, museums, shopping malls and football stadiums are all shut

Everywhere, churches, museums, shopping malls and football stadiums are all shut

Wherever you go, you have to remain at least one metre away from the next person

Wherever you go, you have to remain at least one metre away from the next person

Wherever you go, you have to remain at least one metre away from the next person

The news reached us at a deserted restaurant in Florence, late Monday night. The owner came to tell us and the other table of diners that, as of now, the whole country was under lock-down. 

This was the last supper she would be serving until . . . nobody knows when. No longer were the quarantine measures restricted to hotspot regions of the north. As of 10pm on Monday, we were all in this together.

The atmosphere changed immediately. Before, the coronavirus was something happening to others. Now it was affecting everyone.

Suddenly, you could imagine how it might have been in this restaurant during the war, when British soldiers begged the owner to make chicken curry and mango chutney to remind them of home (the dish is still proudly on the menu today).

As we left the restaurant, three off-duty soldiers with giant kit bags were heading to the station. Italy had entered a war footing.

At least we knew we would soon be leaving. Or so we thought. Then a text message arrived from British Airways, explaining our flight and all others in and out of the country were cancelled.

Then, yesterday afternoon, we learned that BritishAirways has cancelled all flights in and out of Italy until April, as have Wizz Air and Jet2. So we are trapped, 1,000 miles from home.

But would Britain be any safer? According to professor Sergio Brusin of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: ‘The UK is in the same situation Italy was two weeks ago.’

Italians have been ordered to stay at least one metre away from each other and only small numbers can go into shops at the same time

Italians have been ordered to stay at least one metre away from each other and only small numbers can go into shops at the same time

Italians have been ordered to stay at least one metre away from each other and only small numbers can go into shops at the same time 

There are, of course, worse places to be than Italy in March. As Raimondo Gaitano, 37, trapped in Milan, said on Instagram last night: ‘In the war our ancestors were expected to fight. All we have to do is lie on the sofa for two weeks.’

We were able to borrow a car and flee to my mother-in-law’s holiday house in the country, where we plan to spend the next four weeks. A university academic we know forwarded us a World War II-style permit issued by the Interior Ministry that all citizens are obliged to show when stopped by the police, explaining the purpose of your journey.

We hurried to a supermarket to stock up on supplies. The shelves of tinned tomatoes were empty, people were piling bottles of olive oil and dry pasta into trolleys. At the butcher’s counter, we got his last three sausages.

At the check-out, yellow lines had been painted onto the floor at one-metre intervals, designating where each shopper had to wait until the customer in front had bagged up and gone. Arriving in the countryside, we were told in the local shop that as of today, nobody is allowed to leave their ‘commune’, or village.

That means we will now have to rely on a tiny village shop for everything.

We passed soldiers clustered around an army Land Rover in the high street, and had seen several more on the motorway. The scene is the same all over Italy. In Venice, where residents have been in lockdown for nearly two weeks, they fully support the quarantine, saying the sooner everybody does it, the sooner life can return to normal.

That’s the view taken by Gioele Romanelli, 47, a third generation hotelier who runs two hotels in Venice, the Novecento and Casa Flora. He has been running at 2 per cent occupancy and his last guests left yesterday, so he has closed both hotels indefinitely.

‘We are suffering a lot. We employ 30 people, our priority now is to ensure we can keep paying their wages,’ he says.

‘We have just come out of a very hard winter, in which tourism in Venice was massively down because of flooding. Now, normally we would be getting ready for the high season that begins in April and goes on to September. Instead we are closed. The only person we are keeping working is the booking office, so that they can handle all the cancellations.’ 

But there is, he says, an upside. ‘Now that the tourists have gone, we feel safer than ever. And Venice has gone back to how it is supposed to be — calm and beautiful. We are using this time as an opportunity to appreciate the strange privilege we suddenly have of being in an empty Venice.’

John Voigtmann, an ex-record producer turned hotelier, has guaranteed staff at La Bandita in Tuscany that he will pay them for six months even though he has shut the hotel indefinitely.

‘It’s not clear that this cure isn’t worse than the sickness,’ he said in reference to the lockdown. ‘But now is not the time to dispute these measures. Now is the time to be patient, kind, generous and responsible. I am confident that Italy will set a dignified and effective standard for the rest of the world.’

Everywhere, churches, museums, shopping malls and football stadiums are all shut.

Wherever you go, you have to remain at least one metre away from the next person.

Bars and restaurants can only open from 6am to 6pm, as people may forget the rules once they’ve had an evening drink and get too close.

For now, everyone is obeying the policy. This is a country not known for its team spirit. But a new and unique mood has descended. There is an atmosphere of solidarity, of citizens prepared to do their duty. 

It is hard to imagine such draconian measures being taken in Britain, where the instinct to keep calm and carry on still — just — prevails. Today, it may seem like the Italians are behaving according to some melodramatic stereotype. But there is no doubt they had to.

Dr Daniele Macchini, an intensive care physician in Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital in Bergamo, talked in a Facebook post of a ‘tsunami’ that has ‘overwhelmed us’.

‘Cases are multiplying, with a rate of 15-20 admissions per day — all for the same reason.

The results of the swabs come one after the other: positive, positive, positive.

Suddenly emergency services are collapsing. Reasons for admission are always the same: fever and breathing difficulties, fever and cough, respiratory failure.

Radiology reports are always the same: bilateral interstitial pneumonia.’

Ventilators are like gold dust, he added. Operations have been suspended, and staff are exhausted. And yet, Italy has a sixth more hospital beds available than Britain.

As cases of coronavirus continue their relentless spread, could what I have seen in Italy provide a glimpse of Britain to come?

 

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