The president of Italy has hit out at Boris Johnson over remarks the UK’s Covid infection rate was worse than Italy’s because Britons loved their freedom more.
Sergio Mattarella said his citizens “also love freedom” but that they “also care about seriousness”.
Johnson claimed the UK’s infection rate was higher than both Italy’s and Germany’s because Britons came from a “freedom-loving country”.
When asked to explain the anomaly in the Commons, Johnson said: “[Britain is] 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”.
The Italian media have pounced on the comments which suggested the rate in both European countries was down to their historical experiences of totalitarianism.
Massimo Gramellini, who writes for the Italian national newspaper Corriere della Sera, said on Thursday: “In short, if we put masks on here more than in London it’s because we had Mussolini and not Churchill.”
Even the country’s deputy health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri, waded into the debate, telling the Guardian that “freedom comes from respecting rules”.
Sileri said because Italians were observing basic coronavirus restrictions they could continue to enjoy their freedom while living a relatively normal life.
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.”
Sileri praised Italians for their obedience before warning that “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.”