Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, said its citizens “also love freedom, but we also care about seriousness”, responding to Boris Johnson’s suggestion that the UK’s rate of coronavirus infection was worse than both Italy and Germany’s because Britons loved their freedom more.
Mattarella’s comments came at the end of a ceremony in Sardinia, in memory of the former Italian president Francesco Cossiga.
In response to a question in the UK parliament about whether lower Covid-19 infection rates in Italy and Germany were due to them having test and trace systems that work, Johnson had replied that Britain was “a freedom-loving country and if you look at the history in this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this”.
Johnson’s remarks, which appeared to link Italy and Germany’s current rates of infections with historical experiences of totalitarianism, have been widely reported in Italy, with the deputy health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri, also telling the Guardian that “freedom comes from respecting rules”.
The comments sparked debate in the Italian press, with Massimo Gramellini writing in Corriere della Sera on Thursday: “In short, if we put masks on here more than in London it’s because we had Mussolini and not Churchill.”
Sileri said he had only read Johnson’s comments in the newspapers and so he didn’t know the context within which they were made. But he believed that the fact the majority of Italians were widely observing basic rules had allowed them to maintain their freedom and have a relatively normal life while at the same time guaranteeing their future liberty.
He compared the simple act of wearing a face mask to wearing a raincoat and using an umbrella when it rains. “I think wearing masks, which was one of the early rules [imposed], has been fundamental in reducing the transmission,” Sileri said.
“We have been very rigid with the use of masks in enclosed spaces and where physical distancing is difficult to maintain. We also gradually eased the lockdown. So having rigid rules today represents real liberty, normality comes with following the rules and not following them, in my opinion, is contrary to future freedom.”
He added that the long and tough national lockdown, which prevented the devastating outbreak in the north being replicated in the south, as well as an effective testing and tracing system, has enabled Italy to avoid the drastic resurgence of the virus seen in places like Frances, Spain and the UK.
However, he warned: “The fact that today we have low numbers doesn’t mean it will always stay that way … We hope to get a vaccine, but we don’t know when it will come, and so until it comes we have to depend on these rules.”
Italy is also carrying out swab tests at airports on passengers arriving from at-risk countries, but Sileri added the EU needed a common policy in order to allow the safe travel of people within the bloc.