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Mon 30 November 2020
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Italian reporter Francesca Borri ventures to the UK and finds a country ravaged by contradictions, conspiracies and confusion

“But you have a mask, right? In my car I don’t want anyone without one,” I was told outside Manchester airport by the taxi driver. Who had no mask. Apparently it is mandatory; but only for passengers.

I soon realised that my time in the UK was going to be tricky. I am Italian and, in Italy, we have basically just one rule on COVID-19: masks, always. Masks, no matter what. This is because the virus spreads mainly through droplets, experts say, with surfaces accounting for only a-tenth of infections.

In Italy, we spent months navigating the difference between an FFP2, an FFP3, a N95 – not to be mistaken with a KN95. Months weighing cotton filters against carbon filters, discerning an incoming virus from an outgoing one. In the UK, however, a scarf is fine. “Don’t worry, I have the helmet,” said a Deliveroo rider when I kept my distance. He had a helmet, true. But with its visor up.

Since even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been confused by his own rules, I Googled to check the state of play on arrival. With a dictionary on my left and a map of the UK on my right, I attempted to sketch out the Coronavirus map, struggling as I did with the ‘rule of six,’ which is actually the rule of five for ballet, 30 for funerals, 15 for weddings, nothing for hunting – hunting is allowed.

Worried and confused, I decided to seek guidance at the pharmacy around the corner. The chemist had no mask. Don’t worry, he said. It is just a flu.

After the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ campaign, it now seems the plea is: ‘Get Out to Help Out’. Indeed, at 10pm all pubs abide by the curfew and empty. Customers flood the streets. All together; all filled with beer.

But, after all, where else should they be? Households visits are banned. Pubs are the only place to gather. To revive the economy, I guess. Which is why students were told to return to campus, too: though lectures are still online. Even a garden is of no use. You can meet friends, but only in a park. Yet you can visit them in care homes, and you can go shopping, of course. Only fitting rooms are closed, so I bought a hoodie, and I used the café next door as a changing room. And I went back to change size.


The Phantom Pandemic

But the contradictory rules are not the most notable feature of the UK’s Coronavirus response. There are weird rules everywhere. In Rome, a school quarantines classwork: worksheets are touched, and reviewed, only after four days.

The point is that I am a reporter and, in March, I covered Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak in Bergamo, the city that recorded the world’s highest excess mortality. I am now travelling and writing about the virus all over Europe. Yet the UK is the country in which I have been asked most frequently if the virus really exists: if those I have seen dying, really died from it, or from another disease. From comorbidities, perhaps, or from the flu vaccine, or from 5G technology.

The sceptics are not just tabloid readers, either. It is more troubling than that. I ask where they get their information from, and the reply is: “here and there,” or “I am my source”. It is all so vague and foggy. News and facts sees to be vanishing, here.

It is the effect of Facebook, of course, of social networks, and of a media crisis. But it is also the effect of politicians who built their power on tearing down experts. On the idea that we shouldn’t believe anything and anyone, because it’s all a scam. All a hoax. 

There is no way to win the battle against a virus you don’t believe in. It is not only a matter of muddled rules. Lockdown here is first and foremost a matter of trust. The UK, even despite COVID-19, doesn’t live in a police state. In the end, it is down to you; to your sense of responsibility. In Italy too we had an anti-mask rally. It ended with 90 €400 fines.

Here I am routinely asked to take off my mask, as if wearing one is not a sign of respect but the opposite; a sort of rudeness.

Alas, my NHS app began beeping immediately. Potential exposure, it says every five minutes. Potential exposure. Yet it says nothing else. The first time, I even restarted my phone, tilting it in all possible ways to see if by any chance, other notifications popped up. Nothing. And now – I asked myself, ready to write my last will – now what shall I do?

While the world is trying to spot, and isolate, people with Coronavirus who are asymptomatic – those without symptoms – here it is the other way round. Only if you feel sick you can verify if you are sick. All others have to go to a private medical centre and pay £175.

For now, my phone keeps on beeping.


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