When Italy was in the depths of lockdown but in the UK we were still wandering around vaguely confused, not really sure what to do apart from stripping supermarket shelves bare while we waited for further government guidelines, I got a Whatsapp message from a former student of mine in Italy, with a photo from our end-of-course dinner from 2012, saying “Weren’t we gorgeous???” (We were, it has to be said.)
I asked him how things were going up there and he said they were in a state of emergency and things were pretty serious (not that you would have thought it from the conversation opener). I gave him an overview of the situation here and he told me “Your choice has been strongly criticised in Italy, and I also don’t agree with it. Be careful, OK?”
The next day, 18 March, I got a Whatsapp message from another friend in Italy asking if we could have a phone call because she wanted to know from the horse’s mouth what was going on over here.
She told me that she was staying at a friend’s house – even though she wasn’t supposed to be, because in this lockdown in Italy you’re supposed to be at your official residence – together with this friend’s girlfriend. She said they were lucky because they were in the countryside so they could go for walks, but in the towns people could only leave their homes to go to the pharmacy or the supermarket, and that supermarkets were operating on a one-in-one-out basis.
She had heard, with some alarm, about how the UK was dealing with the situation and wanted a first-hand account. I told her it was all a bit confusing. On the one hand, there was a lot of anxiety – the supermarket shelves were empty and coronavirus was all anybody talked about. But on the other hand, the government hadn’t shut down schools, businesses or anything yet, apparently in part to maintain a sense of normality and to avoid “lockdown fatigue”.
That morning the government had just released new guidelines telling people to avoid bars and restaurants, but it stopped short of officially shutting them down. This was a major problem for bar and restaurant owners, because they now found themselves with very few customers but couldn’t claim insurance for being forced to close.
(One customer they didn’t have to worry about losing yet was the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson.
“Of course I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub,” he said in a TV interview that morning.
“But your son just told you not to,” said the interviewer.
“He said we should avoid going to pubs,” said Mr Johnson Sr. “But if I had to go to a pub, I’d go to a pub.”)
Although universities hadn’t been told to close, a lot of them had taken it upon themselves to do so. Many were holding online lessons and were looking at ways of doing exams online too or considering postponing them.
Another problem was that at some point the government stopped trying to keep track of new infections. They initially said what sounded very much like “we’re going for herd immunity” – apparently without acknowledging that herd immunity is best achieved by vaccinating people, not by exposing them to disease – before backpedalling and saying “No, no, that’s not what we said. Herd immunity may be a by-product of our strategy, but it’s not our strategy.”
Then they said “If you have symptoms, don’t go to hospital and don’t call the NHS helpline because we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. Just go home, isolate yourselves and isolate your family.” So they didn’t even know how many new cases there were.
My friend was horrified and said that the UK government had been heavily criticised in Italy for its laissez-faire approach. She implored me to be careful. “It’s a nasty disease” she warned. “It’s not just flu.”
We chatted a bit, then I asked about the girlfriend of the friend she was staying with. I have met this guy a few times and he’s a cheerful soul, who plays music and makes films and organises yoga retreats and goes trekking in Nepal and rarely cuts his hair and is perpetually surrounded by a group of lively people. He also has a series of beautiful blonde girlfriends, changing them, as best I can tell, at the rate of about one a year.
“I don’t know if you can talk now or if there’s someone in the room with you,” I said, “but if you can talk, is the current girlfriend the same as last time we spoke? Every time I speak to you he seems to have a new woman in his life — always blonde.”
“Hmm,” she replied.
“Oh, you can’t talk now,” I said. “OK, never mind.”
“No,” she said, “it’s just that you’re on speakerphone.”
And the moral of that story is not to just ask if a person is alone in the room before you ask an offensive question but also to ask whether they’ve put you on speakerphone.