October 29, 2020   4 mins

I spent much of September in a blissfully tourist-free Italy, returning briefly to London to eat some green vegetables and pick up some new clothes. In early October, I flew back, this time to Sicily, desperate to steer as clear as possible of Britain as it lurched back into the Covid-19 nightmare. Our slurry of virus containment measures seemed almost too silly and ineffectual to be true.

Friends in the North were stupefied by pubs remaining open but only for members of the same households; the ever-more frantic, disorganised feeling of local lockdowns smacked of tinkering while Rome (or Liverpool) burned, and the tier system looked farcically Hancockian. Meanwhile virus rates were surging and we promised — in hideous replay — to once again become the worst-affected country in Europe.

Compared to this, Italy seemed (almost) perfect, with a fraction of the daily rates of other European countries, including our own (around 2,000 a day in September compared to 8,000 in Britain). The trauma of being the first badly-hit country in the West had produced a rigorous alertness that held strong even as restrictions were eased. In September, arriving in Rome, I marvelled at the way people wore their masks over both nose and mouth, and did so without fail in enclosed spaces and often outdoors too.

Generally, Italian rules and regulations were fair and sensible (heavy on masks and temperature checks) if a bit bonkers (packed restaurants and bars were fine, so long as the masks went on for trips to the loo). Since I could mosey round a near-empty Greek amphitheatre and sit outside sipping Aperol ’til midnight with friends, the noisy maskiness, constant temperature checks and endless form-filling were a small price to pay. In London, by contrast, mask-wearing was erratic and sloppy even on the Tube. Our track and trace system had already bombed too; Italy’s, by contrast, was working well, targeting all family and friends of those who tested positive, rather than relying on remembered close contacts.

But now, as Italy finds itself catching up on the rest of Europe — 24,991 cases have been reported in the last 24 hours — the perspective has sharply changed. It is no longer possible to look on the country as admirably competent, if eccentric, in its virus-suppression efforts, compared to dire Britain. It now feels both out of control (like Britain) and, courtesy of a volley of recent “decrees”, scarily repressive (unlike Britain).

Since early October, Italy has been passing Covid emergency diktats, effective immediately but of dubious sense, at an alarming pace. For instance, in a departure from most scientific evidence, which suggests that virus transmissibility is minimal outdoors, masks were made mandatory outside as well as inside. People of different households can still meet inside, however, so the rule made no sense, and came across as a spiteful exercise of state power.

However, at least in Siracuse where I was staying, the rule was not enforced, which made it bearable. Carabinieri cruised constantly, but generally left people alone. But last weekend, the unpleasant sense of an over-active machinery of force was sharpened as a new “decree” was signed on Saturday night — an 11pm curfew topped up with a ruling that all bars and restaurants must close by 6pm, starting on the Monday.

The atmosphere changed immediately. On Monday, in Catania, I had my first experience of being told by slow-cruising police to wear my mask, while early that morning in Siracuse’s Piazza Duomo, a woman had shouted at me to put on my mask since police were hanging around. It was unsettling, and different from anything I felt in Britain, even during the height of the lockdown.

The spirit of the 6pm ruling was also significantly different from what we know in Britain, where measures are usually seen as taking place too late or not going far enough. There has been uproar in the UK because pubs and restaurants  have to close a bit early, but at least — in areas where they are allowed to open at all — they can remain open long enough for patrons to have a proper evening. Indeed as Italians know all too well, restaurants cannot survive on late lunches and bars have no purpose before 6pm.

The effect on the food and drink industry of the 6pm rule is catastrophic, and the effect on national mood is severe. In normally packed, boozy Palermo, where I am currently staying, a desolate hush comes in with sunset. Activity during the day is muted, too, as people shrink into the dreary, pinched space left by multiplying decrees and the ever-present carabinieri.

In September, Boris Johnson was widely mocked in Europe and Westminster for suggesting, in response to a question from Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, that Britain’s virus rates were higher than in Italy or Germany because of our long-established traditions of freedom which make it “very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that it is necessary”.

However sloppy and gauche his comments, Johnson was right. It’s not that continental Europeans take Covid-era repressions lying down — indeed the early closing of restaurants and bars has met with riots, with petrol bombs, vandalism and fireworks, in Catania, Milan, Turin, Naples and Rome.

But autumn in a worsening pandemic in Italy has shown that there is a ubiquity of state force that springs easily to the surface here, and though it is not violent, it is sinister. I do not like being told by police to wear a mask outside, which happened twice yesterday as I walked alone on an empty street. And as someone raised with weaponless bobbies on the beat, I shiver as the yelling megaphones cruise past my window, reminding people of the rules.

In the absence of a blanket lockdown, at least one can roam freely so long as the mask is on, and one is home by the 11pm curfew. In the spring lockdown, however, Italians, Spaniards and French had to show police correctly filled-in forms if they went outside, and it may not be long until they have to again; in France, as of this week, a “your papers, please” situation is once again in full swing as people have to show attestation forms if they want to leave the house. No matter how bad things get in Britain it is impossible to imagine such a situation arising.

And so my thoughts, grudgingly, have begun to turn again to the UK — however convulsed it is. After all, our virus-related problems stem from a government making a mess because it isn’t very good at policing us. In Italy, as I am finding out, it is different. Here, it seems, the state is more adept at controlling and suppressing its people than stemming the spread of the virus.


Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)
realzoestrimpel