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Northern Ireland man Phil Clark on life in coronavirus lockdown in Italy and not being able to visit his ailing father in Belfast

Phil Clark tells Stephanie Bell how the deserted streets remind him of no-go areas in the Troubles - and why the hardest part is not being able to visit his elderly father

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St Mark’s Square in Venice is almost devoid of people amid the nationwide lockdown instituted across Italy last week

St Mark’s Square in Venice is almost devoid of people amid the nationwide lockdown instituted across Italy last week

Phil Clark in Venice

Phil Clark in Venice

St Mark’s Square in Venice is almost devoid of people amid the nationwide lockdown instituted across Italy last week

A Belfast man living in a lockdown zone in northern Italy has described his local town as "like something out of a zombie video game". But while people in the Veneto region where Phil Clark lives are confined to their homes, he says there is no panic-buying on the levels we are experiencing in Northern Ireland.

A video shot by Phil in his local supermarket two days ago, and posted on a YouTube channel where he is keeping a video diary chronicling the crisis, shows fully stocked shelves.

And there are even plenty of toilet rolls and pasta, the items that have been rapidly cleared off shelves by shoppers here.

While the streets are empty and businesses are shut, Phil says the reality is that so far most people are content to stay indoors.

The few who are still venturing outside have just this week been warned they could be fined or put in jail.

He says: "I think the Italian government has reacted very well to the threat and have been strong in their decision-making, and it has been great to see the community get behind them and support them in closing things down.

"It reminds me a bit of being back in Belfast in the Seventies and Eighties when you were advised not to go out to certain areas.

"The streets are really quiet but up until Thursday of this week we still had some people walking around and parents bringing their kids to the play parks.

I only go out to buy food and I open the door of the grocery store with my elbow. In fact, most stores are leaving their doors open so that people don't have to touch them

"This led to the local mayor putting out a strong statement warning parents that this was not a holiday and they needed to keep themselves and their kids safe indoors."

Phil grew up in Derriaghy but has spent most of his life overseas in Australia.

For the past 10 years he has been travelling between Italy and the US, where he runs a candle and perfume manufacturing company.

His ex-wife is Italian - it was that relationships which brought him to Italy - and she and their young son Alessandro (12) live in Milan.

Reflecting on the dramatic events of the past few days, Phil explains just how rapidly things changed in Italy: "The last time I was home in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was watching the news and it was reported that there were 11 cases of coronavirus in Italy.

"Now there are over 15,000 cases and 1,016 deaths, and within just over a week of going back to Italy from Belfast we were in lockdown.

"Every day the death toll is rising. People are wearing protective masks and taking precautions.

"I only go out to buy food and I open the door of the grocery store with my elbow. In fact, most stores are leaving their doors open so that people don't have to touch them."

The prevailing sense of community spirit and being mindful of others' needs is striking, Phil says, especially when it comes to shopping for groceries and other household essentials.

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Phil Clark in Venice

Phil Clark in Venice

Phil Clark in Venice

"I was in my local fruit and veg shop this week and there was plenty of food," he goes on. "People are being really good about how they are buying supplies. There is no panicking.

"People are being mindful of each other and not over-shopping, they are being considerate.

"I have been shocked by pictures of empty supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland on Facebook and really panic-buying doesn't help anybody, it just makes things worse."

Police are patrolling the streets in his local town of Bassano del Grappa and anyone going out for non-essential reasons risks a minimum fine of €250 or a maximum three-month prison sentence.

However, Phil is being deeply affected by how the crisis is preventing him from travelling. Not for business reasons, but instead being able to return to Northern Ireland to see his ill, elderly dad. Thompson (92) is in palliative care in Belfast Hospice and Phil is upset that he cannot now fly home to see him.

His mum Ida (89) also lives in the city and he has a brother and sister here.

"My dad hasn't got long to go although he is still in good spirits," says Phil. "Even if I could get over to see him, the hospice wouldn't let me in and I wouldn't want to take the risk of infecting other people.

"The hospice has put its own precautions in place and has put the hand sanitiser outside the door now for people to use before they go in.

A couple of weeks ago I could have said Italy was stupid for closing everything down, but look where we are now after just a couple of weeks, and how much worse could it have been if the government hadn't acted as it did?

"It's hard not being able to go home and see him and it's also been tough not being able to go to Milan to see my son. I've been talking to my son on the phone and he is afraid to go out, which is not a bad thing.

"Never in my adult life did I envisage a situation like this.

"It is like being in a zombie video game."

Aside from being unable to visit his father, Phil has not struggled with the practical realities of being confined to home.

His partner Lynette Reed, who lives in Los Angeles and frequently flies back and forth to Italy to see him, was visiting when the town went into quarantine.

She was due to fly back to Los Angeles next week but is now also in lockdown with Phil.

"We have been fine about it so far," he explains. "I have been able to do work on my laptop, and thank God for Netflix. I go out usually in the mornings to get fresh bread and then come straight back home again.

"You can't help worrying about getting the virus and I think people just want to stay safe, so at the minute we are happy being confined to home.

"Locally we've had a few people tested for the virus but thankfully no one I know has got it so far.

"One of our top medics who sits on the coronavirus decision-making body here died this week from it and he was only 67 and didn't have an underlying health condition."

While he feels that the Italians have done the right thing in locking down a huge part of the country, he thinks Britain is lagging behind other countries when it comes to taking strong steps to curb the spread of the disease.

"I think first of all Boris Johnson needs to do something to stop the panic-buying. I really don't think the British Government has done enough overall," he says.

"A couple of weeks ago I could have said Italy was stupid for closing everything down, but look where we are now after just a couple of weeks, and how much worse could it have been if the government hadn't acted as it did?

"I don't understand why schools are closed in the Republic of Ireland and not in the North when both countries share the same block of land.

"Here in Italy they have introduced a service to deliver food and medicine to elderly people who can't get out which is fantastic. At home elderly people are bound to be suffering because of the panic-buying."

Phil adds: "I don't think you can be too cautious at this stage, and yet all Boris is doing is telling people to wash their hands. It seems a very lax approach."

Phil is keeping a video diary of his experience of being locked in during the virus controls and you can follow him on YouTube (search for 'Phil Clark'), or at facebook.com/philclarkrandomperspective

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