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Coronavirus: Message from expats based in Italy is 'take it seriously... they didn't here, but do now'

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An Italian soldier speaks to a passenger at Milano Centrale train station

An Italian soldier speaks to a passenger at Milano Centrale train station

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An empty fondamenta della Misericordia is seen in Venice

An empty fondamenta della Misericordia is seen in Venice

Getty Images

Patrick Livingstone with wife Grainne and their children Dara and Eva

Patrick Livingstone with wife Grainne and their children Dara and Eva

An Italian soldier speaks to a passenger at Milano Centrale train station

Workers from Northern Ireland at the centre of the worst coronavirus crisis in Europe have warned people here not to be as complacent as Italy was until recently.

In an unprecedented move the Italian Government shut down the entire country of some 60m people until at least April 3 to try to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The move announced on Monday is the most drastic move a European country has taken to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

Antrim aircraft engineer and father-of-one Chris O'Hagan (43), who lives outside Milan in Arona, said the streets resemble something from a Hollywood film.

"For quite a while I was thinking that the media were portraying this in a sensational way, because I didn't see a lot of what was going on," he said.

"But I got up this morning to go to work and things have totally changed. They have locked down the country.

"The company I work for has passes that allow us to travel. But I am only allowed to travel from home to my workplace and then return. Police are setting up roadblocks and they have told people in the towns and areas that they can't leave at this moment in time. They are only allowed to leave for emergency reasons - to take people to hospital for example.

"When I was coming back from work today (Tuesday) I saw the police setting up a checkpoint on my way home. They are definitely clamping down. All restaurants, bars and clubs shut down at 6pm. It's like a ghost town at night."

Chris, who has lived in Italy for two years, said that he does not know anyone with the virus and the area where he lives is not a high risk area, but he is still on lockdown.

"The lockdown isn't frightening, it's more concerning that they have stopped all flights coming in and going out of the country. I have booked a flight to get out of the country on Wednesday night, but I'm considering not going because I don't know if I'm carrying the virus - will I bring it home to my family? Once I get home, I won't be able to leave the house for two weeks. I don't know what to do.

"I think the Italian Government should have been doing all these measures weeks ago. They have been quite lackadaisical about it. They seem to be clamping down on it now and they are giving advice over socialising. They are trying to contain the spread of it, but it should have been done long ago.

"People are going daft, panic-buying toilet roll. Some of the shelves are empty. This is so surreal, it really is like something out of a film.

"If I could warn people back home, it would be to take heed of the health officials' advice seriously. People here were not taking heed of the advice to wash hands. Be clean and be smart, because they weren't here. It seems to be the Italian mentality, they have a sense of entitlement. I wouldn't want all of this to happen back home because we are a much smaller place."

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Patrick Livingstone with wife Grainne and their children Dara and Eva

Patrick Livingstone with wife Grainne and their children Dara and Eva

Patrick Livingstone with wife Grainne and their children Dara and Eva

Patrick Livingstone (38), a teacher originally from Armagh, lives in Milan with his wife Grainne, and their children Dara (4) and Eva (2).

The couple teach at the St Louis International School in Milan.

"I went to the park with my son today and there are people around, but there are very few people around and it's certainly very eerie.

"We do try to restrict our movements and we are not going too far. We are not going on public transport and we are just staying in the local area. We live in an apartment and my wife and I are now working from home. We take online classes all day, all teaching is now done via Skype. We are delivering content all day and juggle the childcare also.

"If we go to the supermarket, there is a queue out the door as they are only letting a certain number of people in because they have to be a metre apart.

"Since the lockdown it has started to get a bit uneasy. We were thinking of coming home, but we would have to self-quarantine there. So we are kind of stuck.

"If I could warn Northern Ireland on anything, it would be this. Two or three weeks ago here in Italy we were so flippant about this virus.

"We thought this was a distant disease that wouldn't impact us personally. But now it has become very tangible and real. Two or three weeks ago we weren't taking this seriously. It's only now that these measures have been put in place that people are taking it seriously."

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Gerry Rafferty and wife Hattie

Gerry Rafferty and wife Hattie

Gerry Rafferty and wife Hattie

St Louis International School's principal Gerry Rafferty is also on lockdown with his wife Hattie in Milan. The 56-year-old Armagh man says we must learn from the Italian experience.

"The lockdown at the minute is crazy," he said. "The new laws that have come in are really quite tough. The whole population must take responsibility now and stay home."

Gerry said that two weeks ago the Italian population were not taking the situation seriously.

"If I could speak to people in Northern Ireland now, I would say to them that they need to learn from the Italian experience. There were few cases a few weeks ago and look at it today.

"Two weeks ago we were sitting there pretty arrogantly thinking that we wouldn't go to China or South Korea because of the virus and now we're the source. Now we see it coming into other countries. Learning from experience is basically cutting down on contact with other people, washing hands, not shaking hands..."

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