Italian prosecutors to question PM Conte over handling of virus

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is to face questioning by prosecutors on his administration's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is to face questioning by prosecutors on his administration's handling of the coronavirus crisis. © Aris Oikonomou, AFP

Prosecutors are to question Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the health and interior ministers over how the government handled the coronavirus pandemic, news agencies reported Wednesday.

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The prosecutors from Bergamo, the city in the northern Lombardy region worst hit by the virus, have launched an investigation into the crisis, which has killed over 34,000 people in Italy.

They are looking in particular at why a red zone was not enforced in February around the towns of Nembro and Alzano. Regional officials and the government blame each other for the failure.

Italy was the first European country to be ravaged by the virus. The government imposed the country's first red zone, around the town of Codogno, 24 hours after doctors discovered a patient positive for COVID-19.

It went on to shut down 10 other towns, and then large areas of the north, before imposing a nationwide lockdown.

Conte, Health Minister Roberto Speranza and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese will be called on by prosecutors in Rome later Wednesday, the Corriere della Sera and Sole 24 Ore dailies reported.

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Blame game

The team, lead by chief prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota, has already questioned Lombardy region's head Attilio Fontana and its health minister Giulio Gallera. They insist it was up to Rome to decide whether certain areas should be shut.

Codogno was closed on February 21. Lombardy and 14 provinces in the neighbouring regions of Veneto, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna followed on March 8, and the whole of Italy shut down two days later.

Gallera has said it was clear from February 23 that there were a lot of cases in the areas around Nembro and Alzano, towns in the Bergamo province, but the government had failed to act.

Conte replied that "if Lombardy had wanted to, it could have made Alzano and Nembro red zones".

But a scientific committee advising the government and the national health institute had warned in early March 3 that the towns should be locked down, according to the Corriere della Sera.

The Bergamo prosecutors will also speak to the head of Italy's national health institute (ISS) Silvio Brusaferro, and the World Health Organization's Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi, the reports said.

'Lies'

Fifty relatives of coronavirus victims -- members of the "Noi Denunceremo" (We Will Denounce) committee -- filed complaints with the Bergamo prosecutors earlier Wednesday over the handling of the pandemic. It is the first such legal group action in Italy.

"If it hadn't been so disorganised, if (the province of) Bergamo had been made into a red zone earlier, perhaps the hospitals would not have been driven to collapse," said Monica Plazzoli, whose husband Armando died of the virus.

Far-right opposition leader Matteo Salvini, head of the League party which governs Lombardy, on Wednesday welcomed the investigation.

"After so many lies and shameful attacks, justice has been done: those who have made mistakes must pay," he said.

Andrea Orlando of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), part of the government coalition, rebuked Salvini for using "a painful situation for propaganda".

It was normal procedure for prosecutors to speak with institutional representatives, he said.

(AFP)

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