The UK should have gone into lockdown 10 days ago and is now at risk of having a worse coronavirus infection rate than Italy, a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert has warned.
Walter Ricciardi, the Italian government’s scientific adviser, who called Italy’s lockdown, told Sky News that the UK had the benefit of seeing what happened in his home nation and should have learned lessons.
The Italian WHO representative compared recent images of packed trains on the London Underground with a football match in Milan last month, which is believed to have accelerated the COVID-19 outbreak in northern Italy.
“When we scientists put the evidence on your table, you should take action,” Mr Ricciardi said.
“When you take the decision late you pay a price in sick people and in deaths.”
Some 40,000 football fans travelled from Bergamo to San Siro stadium to watch Atalanta beat Valencia on 19 February.
That event is believed to have poured petrol on the coronavirus crisis in Bergamo in the region of Lombardy, now the epicentre of this pandemic.
Mr Ricciardi said: “When I looked at some images of the London Tube or some mass gatherings that happened when we already had the impression that this was dangerous, this was a kind of example that could have been avoided.
“Having had the example of Italy, the UK could have adopted its (lockdown) much earlier.”
He said the delay in calling a lockdown in the UK – which was announced on Monday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – could result in a higher infection rate than Italy.
Mr Ricciardi added that normality as we know it will not resume until a COVID-19 vaccine is found and social distancing will have to be maintained.
It could be the summer before we travel again within Europe, he added.
Italy is now the worst-hit country by the coronavirus outbreak after more than 8,000 deaths.
The reasons behind the huge death rate in Italy are complex but largely thought to be down to the country’s population profile, the second oldest in the world.
The high concentration of cases in one area of northern Italy has also put pressure on a healthcare system that struggled to cope with the number of dying and sick.
By delaying the decision to lockdown the UK, Mr Ricciardi said it makes it inevitable British people will have to endure these conditions for longer.
“I think at least one month but I guess it could be even longer,” he said.
Conditions in Italy have tightened in the last week. Exercise is more restricted and fines have increased to €3,000 for anyone found outside with a valid reason and the right documents.
Mr Ricciardi says he hopes the lockdown will not follow the Wuhan model of three months, but he expects it will be weeks before there is any relief for Italians.
He is now advising the government to adopt South Korean-style tracking, using people’s mobile phones so they can monitor the movements and contact those who test positive.