CFJ EXCLUSIVE Part 1: The full story of how Covid-19 hit the flooring sector

ON Monday 9 March, carpet fitter, CFJ columnist and NICF vice president, Brian King and his wife arrived at Venice’s local airport after a romantic four days in the historic lagoon city celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.

When Brian had booked the break in autumn 2019 there’d been no clue what lay ahead. For him, the holiday would be an opportunity to give his knees a well-earned rest from his physically exhausting day job and enjoy some long overdue quality time with his other half.

But as rumours swirled of a highly transmissible coronavirus emanating from China, Brian had begun to get jittery. Every other day leading up to his holiday, he rang his travel agent who insisted it was safe to travel. Brian was warned that if he cancelled, he’d forfeit his money. ‘Everything’s fine in Italy,’ they told him. ‘Don’t panic.’

The reason for Brian’s concern was the spread of the novel virus Sars-CoV-2, which causes the disease, Covid-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019), the youngest in a family of seven coronaviruses known to affect humans.

These zoonotic viruses (meaning they jump from animals to humans) are more successful when they don’t kill their hosts, but the new one, which had originated in China, wasn’t playing by the rules.

Less than a year before Brian’s Venetian escapade, in May 2019, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, had warned a pandemic was the most dangerous threat to humanity and that the death toll could rival the greatest wars of the past. With an estimated 1.5m viruses in wildlife that aren’t yet known about, and which could spill over into humans, Gates’s prediction had been timely but ultimately pointless, because it had been largely ignored.

On the morning of Brian’s departure for Venice - Wednesday 4 March – officials announced 87 confirmed coronavirus cases, the biggest one-day jump yet. But prime minister, Boris Johnson, had only two days earlier said that the UK was ‘very, very well prepared’ after chairing his first Cobra meeting on the matter. Surely there wasn’t anything to worry about.

Brian and his wife were picked up early and headed for Manchester Airport for their flight with TUI. Once there, his experience was completely different from the other times he’d flown. ‘It was quieter than usual, and a few people were wearing facemasks. Check-in was a dream – there wasn’t even a queue – and we whizzed through security.’

Brian booked the Aspire lounge where he was surprised to find a full buffet of fresh hot food and drinks and only three other couples. In fact, there were more staff members than travellers. He grabbed a couple of beers for himself and a glass of fizz for his wife to start an early celebration. ‘Boarding the plane, I was gobsmacked at how few passengers there were,’ said Brian. He wondered whether it was financially viable for an aircraft to take off with so many empty seats. His wife was worried, but he calmed her. ‘There’s nothing we can do except make the best of it,’ he said.

Once they landed in Venice, they chilled out when they noticed it was as busy as Brian had hoped. Nobody was wearing facemasks, for starters. ‘We jumped on a full water taxi with people crammed together. When we arrived at St Mark’s Square, where we were due to stay, the weather was beautiful. Holidaymakers sat outside the restaurants, eating and drinking. Our hotel was busy, and the nightlife was buzzing. The atmosphere was completely relaxed, so different from the UK where, I felt, the media had been sensationalising things.’

And indeed, over their four days in Venice, life was idyllic. They wouldn’t have been aware that on their first day, the first UK death – a woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions - was announced. Or that, the following day, Nadine Dorries, the health minister, went into self-isolation after coming down with symptoms. The Kings’ concerns would surely have been dispelled if they’d known the PM was attending the England v Wales match at Twickenham on 7 March. Good times were still being had back in the UK, clearly.

During their holiday, they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, even though nearby Lombardy in northern Italy was quickly becoming the epicentre of a public health emergency. However, water traffic was becoming so quiet, a gondolier offered Brian and his wife a special deal for a ride. Even at that point, Venice’s notoriously muddy waters were beginning to clear and Brian spotted fish darting around.

‘We walked around St Mark’s Cathedral, cruised to the island of Burano with its colourful fishing houses, and scoffed pasta and pizza at restaurants,’ says Brian. ‘The weather was absolutely gorgeous – like a really good UK summer. There were perhaps fewer people around than I’d expect in an international tourist resort, but there was no indication nearby Lombardy was beginning to spin out of control.’

For Brian, there were some hints about what was happening in the world beyond. Venice had – only days before he’d arrived – cut short its beloved carnival by two days; street performers were photographed with face masks to go with their garish costumes - a sign of the times if there ever was one.

Friends and family were texting madly, asking whether Brian was able to get home. He was perplexed. Nobody else around him was panicking, and he was supposedly right near the heart of Europe’s erupting crisis, so things couldn’t be that bad – surely. But Brian’s contacts had reason to worry: the infection (and therefore the death) rate was soaring in Italy.

I felt I could relate to Brian’s experience; I also happened to be on holiday in Venice during the last true global horror show – 9/11. On the afternoon of that dark day, heavily armed police stood around nervously in St Mark’s Square, although we were to learn of the attacks in the US only later that evening. The newspaper headlines the next day spoke an international language: ARMAGEDDON, shouted one.

March 2020 was seeing the start of another sort of Armageddon. But instead of airbuses hurtling through the sunny skies to terrify and slaughter the innocent, as they’d done in Manhattan, this microscopic agent of the apocalypse was revealing itself slowly – and invisibly.

For the Kings, the scale of this decade’s 9/11 slowly began to sink in when, on the final night of their holiday, they noticed army and police walking around and bars and restaurants started to shut early. ‘Italy is a very religious country, so I thought they were closing because it was Sunday,’ said Brian. ‘But later when we got back to our hotel, the travel agent rang to say the country was now a red zone and was going into full lockdown.’

Indeed, Giuseppe Conte, the prime minster, had that very day said Italy was ‘facing an emergency, a national emergency’. Nonetheless, Brian’s agent assured him that – for the moment – his flight was still scheduled to leave on time.

As Brian and his wife fell asleep on their final night in Venice, a mere 30 miles west of them, the town of Vo was sealed off. Further west, the centre of the epidemic in Europe, Bergamo, was already being pushed to its limits by the dead and dying. And doctors at the hospital – under siege, despite being one of the most sophisticated on the continent – had a message for the UK: ‘Get ready. It’s coming.’

PART 2: Available next Friday