Italy’s lockdown has been a recipe for disaster

The government’s haphazard response to Covid-19 has exacerbated the health crisis.

Dominic Standish


More than 80,000 people in Italy are known to be infected with Covid-19 and 8,215 have died from it – nearly twice as many as any other country.

Yet despite this dreadful outcome, in a video conference of G7 foreign ministers on 25 March Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, boasted about Italy’s lockdown model. ‘In these weeks the other countries have recognised that Italy’s approach is the model to follow’, said Di Maio. His statement implies that the Italian government’s response to coronavirus was based on a rational model and guided by strategic thinking. But the government’s key actions prove this is a myth.

First, on 31 January, after two Chinese tourists in Italy tested positive for Covid-19, the government became the first Eurozone country to ban all direct flights between Italy and China. As there are high volumes of business between the countries, it was inevitable people would continue to travel anyway, only indirectly. There are more than 300,000 Chinese people working in Italy and some of them were likely to be travelling back to Italy after Chinese New Year on 25 January.

Many of the Chinese people living in Italy are from Wuhan – the original epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. They tend to be in Italy to work in the leather and textile industries in the northern Italian regions, especially in Lombardy, the region with most Covid-19 cases. From 23 January, people could no longer leave Wuhan for Italy as the city was locked down. Yet many may have travelled to Italy after Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan in late December.

There are even records of a significant and unusual increase in people hospitalised in Lombardy for flu and pneumonia between October and December last year. We do not know for certain if Covid-19 was spread from Wuhan to Lombardy directly, but this was the Italian region where the virus initially spread most rapidly. The government failed to quarantine and test people who were travelling between Italy and China in this period – nor did it test those who came indirectly from China after its travel ban.

The second significant decision by the Italian government was to lock down the Lombardy region and many parts of the Veneto region. But this move – and the way it was communicated – could have actually accelerated rather than restricted the spread of coronavirus in Italy. The lockdown was officially announced by prime minister Giuseppe Conte during a news conference, shortly after 2am on 8 March. But news of the lockdown had leaked to the press the previous evening. The lockdown was not initially well-enforced and there were widespread reports of people leaving lockdown areas to travel to other parts of Italy. As the lockdown included the closure of schools and universities in these areas, students and many people working in education headed to other parts of the country where their families are based.

The lockdown of these northern areas was extended to the whole country on 9 March. The government ordered all schools to be closed but most workplaces were free to remain open. The result was that vast numbers of children had to be cared for during the day by their grandparents while their parents worked. It was well-known at this time that children rarely show serious symptoms of Covid-19 when they are infected and that people over 70 are the age group most likely to die from the virus. In other words, the government’s closure of schools made it more likely that children who could have been infected with Covid-19 were spreading it to the elderly.

The targeted lockdown of places with high numbers of Covid-19 cases like Vo’ Euganeo in the Veneto region has proven effective in treating those infected and eventually lowering the number of new infections. But the national lockdown spread the state’s resources too thinly when it should have concentrated on those areas with the most infections.

This lack of local focus was made worse by the government’s decision last weekend to tighten the national lockdown by closing all workplaces and public spaces which it considered ‘non-essential’ for national production and supporting life. Moreover, this decision failed to take into account the possible long-term health, social and economic outcomes of locking down the whole population. The government has had to inject billions of euros into the economy to try to rebalance this.

The way the government introduced the latest phase of the lockdown made it abundantly clear that there is no strategic thinking going on. Early afternoon on Friday 20 March, Veneto regional governor Luca Zaia declared that people in the region had to stay within 200 metres of their houses unless travelling for work, health or necessities like buying food. The national health minister Roberto Speranza responded on Friday evening by signing a directive stating that people across the country had to stay ‘around’ their houses unless travelling for essential reasons. He also ordered all parks to close from Saturday.

On Saturday night, Conte announced the national lockdown of all non-essential workplaces after the Lombardy regional governor Attilio Fontana had demanded this for his region. This prompted governors of other regions to call on the government to ban employees who were no longer working from travelling from northern regions (with high levels of Covid-19 infections) to other regions. On Sunday, another lockdown decree was issued which stipulated that nobody could move from one council area to another unless they had a documented work or health reason.

Thus over a single weekend, the government’s definition of the lockdown kept on changing, mostly in response to demands from regional governors. On Wednesday this week, the government changed the definition of non-essential workplaces after trade-union leaders representing Lombardy and Lazio metalworkers threatened to strike.

One reason the government’s lockdown measures have been so haphazard is that the current government has no sense of democratic responsibility to the people – or any democratic mandate at all, for that matter. Instead, the government has been merely reactive – changing policy on the hoof, in response to calls for stronger restrictions by governors, unions and journalists.

The government and many unelected ministers, especially Conte, the unelected prime minister, lack any sense of democratic accountability. That is why Conte feels he can announce changes to the law in the middle of the night on Facebook, as he did on Saturday. It is also why most of the recent lockdowns have been by ministerial decrees which do not require approval by parliament.

After complaints about the lack of oversight, both houses of parliament were recalled on Wednesday and Thursday to debate and approve new lockdown measures. These include increasing the fines for violations of lockdown laws to a range of €400 to €3,000. Since 11 March, 2.6million people have been checked by police and 120,000 have been fined, while 1.2million shops have been checked and 2,600 shop owners fined. The latest lockdown law will also allow regional governors and mayors to decide on new lockdown measures which can endure for seven days before the government can approve or reject them.

This abdication of government responsibility hands state power to local state representatives, many of whom have been competing to show who is the strongest man. Some mayors have been acting like dictators, attacking people who leave their houses.

Instead of irrational and ever-more draconian state lockdowns, the government should allow local communities the freedom to help each other. In addition, there should be locally targeted isolation, protection and treatment of elderly and seriously ill people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19. According to a study by Italy’s national health authority, over 99 per cent of those who have died from Covid-19 in Italy suffered from previous medical conditions. The state needs urgently to focus on Covid-19 epicentres like Bergamo in Lombardy, where the virus is spreading through hospitals, ambulances and medical staff, and the necessary resources and equipment are in short supply.

We need to start treating Covid-19 as a medical emergency by targeting resources and measures more effectively. The lockdown model has caused chaos.

Dominic Standish is the author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality, and is a TV and radio commentator on Italian politics. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter: @domstandish

Picture by: Getty

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Graham Southern

30th March 2020 at 9:33 pm

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Peter Newt

28th March 2020 at 9:28 am

The worse thing that could happen to Europe was Italy getting it first and the second was following them in their actions. I hope other nations learn that when Italy does something to fix things, maybe doing something different would be better, Its a shame that so many lives will be lost on this occasion., But them this sometimes focuses minds.

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29th March 2020 at 2:54 pm

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Ness Immersion

29th March 2020 at 11:56 pm

I hope people have started to notice that the stricter the lockdown, the worse the reported outcome, (Italy, Spain, Wuhan, France)
Initial research into viral loads and distribution is indicating that lockdown worsen the outcome.
Best results obtained by getting people out in fresh air, social distancing and UV.

James Knight

27th March 2020 at 6:41 pm

Italy has a different demographic, more older people with respiratory issues.

It was the same in the UK. Johnson reacted to the study from Imperial College London that apparently was not even peer reviewed. Later we learned that it conflated excess deaths with total deaths. As reliable as a global warming model. Recall the Icelandic volcano that ground air travel way beyond necessary. That was also experts relying on flawed modelling.

Another irony is the “Clap for the NHS”. Bravo! A pity they missed that we need to PAY for the NHS, not clap for it. And to do that we require an economy that is not on it’s knees. Sneering at construction workers who are part of the economy that pays for the NHS is hardly helping. Not everyone is a web designer or blogger who can work from home.

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27th March 2020 at 8:21 pm

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Tony Benn

27th March 2020 at 5:08 pm

The vast majority of the deaths in Italy are down to the aged population, the 80% of those dying are over 70. As for lockdown logically it cannot work when lockdown just means limiting those you can meet. Yes you will reduce the peak but surely you want the peak now, in period April-August not to wait until the autumn and then reintroduce mixing?

Peter Baker

27th March 2020 at 3:26 pm

The way this crisis has been handled is such Bullcr*p that I have now lost the will to even bother to type anything sensible anymore. The evidence this has been spectacularly mishandled is so widespread and comprehensive it would fill a book. So called experts are now backtracking but the damage has already been done.

We are all under house arrest but the airports are still open and the government was perfectly happy to allow over 3000 Madrid fans to fly in from lock down and infect everyone in Liverpool.

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27th March 2020 at 4:13 pm

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steve moxon

27th March 2020 at 4:26 pm

Yes, that’s about the size of it.
Governments everywhere are refusing to acknowlege that there were multiple reports of a virus with exactly the symptoms of COVID-19 back in the early autumn (here in the UK, included) and the estimates of a huge proportion of the population having already been infected.
This totally destroys the argument for wrecking the economy.


31st March 2020 at 1:18 pm

Look at today’s response from the Chinese-not me gov. Seriously should we be dealing with this country? They and their virus have cost the world trillions and many lives. They really do put profit before people-like all good communists and their animal rights abuse are horrific.

Tony Benn

27th March 2020 at 5:13 pm

Spot on, there are flights into Heathrow from Rome and China today, as well as all points Europe and the USA. What the hell is the point of sitting at home when people are travelling around spreading whatever diseases they carry IF this is dangerous. The conclusion I come to is those at the top don’t consider it dangerous but are too scared to say so in case numbers of deaths rise.


28th March 2020 at 4:23 pm

It shows that there is no such thing as democracy-the global elite is in control-the attitude of the developed world to this virus has been an almost identical consensus even though each country is quite different. It also gives us a tiny feeling of how awful and oppressive life was for the average citizen living through an actual World War.


28th March 2020 at 4:45 pm

By identical consensus I mean that if the city of York was threatened by an awful fire-you would expect the authorities to evacuate its citizens-but you would not expect them to evacuate the cities of Manchester and liverpool. Surely it is London that is on fire-so why should Lyme Regis be closed down? The authorities know where the ‘fire’ is and surely they know why?

Neil John

27th March 2020 at 3:00 pm

“Many of the Chinese people living in Italy are from Wuhan – the original epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. They tend to be in Italy to work in the leather and textile industries in the northern Italian regions, especially in Lombardy, the region with most Covid-19 cases. ” This has been well documented, along with the stunning lack of registered deaths of Chinese nationals in Italy prior to this event, it being long suspected that the average number of deaths still occur, but the bodies are disposed of and the passports used to cover up/legitimise illegal migrants. The reason the Chinese have taken over vast swathes of the Italian clothing industry is so they can make huge profits from cheaper often ‘indentured’ Chinese labour and ship stuff back to China with the sought after ‘Made in Italy’ label, the Chinese state doesn’t like falsely labelled goods actually being sold in China!

David Webb

27th March 2020 at 2:55 pm

Dominic, the fact that the flight ban between Italy and China merely means Italy should have banned Chinese people (of all passport statuses, including those with EU passports) from entering the country by land, sea or air. The coronavirus outbreak in Italy was a policy choice by a globalist government. We need to scale down globalisation, do without immigrants, produce all our food and drugs at home. That is the meaning of Brexit, and yet you seem to be trying to twist it in the globalist direction again.

Tony Benn

27th March 2020 at 5:15 pm

If travel is a risk then all travel should have been banned, the fact is it wasn’t considered a risk


29th March 2020 at 9:30 pm

The globalist elite state they want open borders with millions coming into the Western world-yet when any problems arise they flee away somewhere on their private planes,as they are rich hypocrites.

Dodgy Geezer

27th March 2020 at 1:44 pm

The medical response to Covid is FAR less interesting than the Social response – which will provide study opportunities for academics for decades to come.

As a libertarian, i am interested in the practical impacts on a decentralised state like Italy compared to a highly organised administrative system like Germany. You might think that Germanic organisation would win all the time, but I anticipate that the lack of state direction in Italy is compensated for by greater responsibility and initiative amongst the individual people .

It will be interesting to examine the history of the episode once it has finished…

fret slider

27th March 2020 at 1:43 pm

“I’m not a virus. I’m human. Eradicate the prejudice.” This was the message of videos released in northern Italy in February this year, urging Italians to hug Chinese people to encourage them in the fight against the coronavirus.” –

That obviously went well.

One thing is for sure, the modellers have got it wrong…

Gareth Edward KING

27th March 2020 at 1:21 pm

Interesting the difference in governmental reaction to covid-19 between Italy (centralised state but not as much as France) and Spain which is probably the most de-centralised country in Europe. Sánchez has basically taken over all co-ordination in terms of the reactions to this health crisis, along with the appropriate ministries, much to the chagrin of Quim Torra (Generalidad, Catalonia) and the Region of Murcia governed by the PP-Vox. The former harps on as if there has indeed been a military take-over in all but name. Spain is certainly a police state now with constitutional guarantees on freedom of movement and assembly having been (temporarily) rescinded until midnight April 11th.

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