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Prosecutors question Italy’s prime minister over slow coronavirus lockdowns

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte speaks at a news conference on Italy’s reopening after its coronavirus lockdown.
(Pool Photo)

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was being questioned Friday by prosecutors investigating the lack of a coronavirus lockdown of two towns in Lombardy’s Bergamo province, which turned into one of the hardest-hit areas of the country’s outbreak.

Doctors and virologists have said the two-week delay in quarantining the towns of Alzano and Nembro allowed the virus to spread in Bergamo, which saw a 571% increase in excess deaths in March compared with the average of the previous five years.

Lead prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota arrived with a team of aides Friday morning at the premier’s office in Rome, the Palazzo Chigi. In addition to Conte, she is expected to question the health and interior ministers. In previous days, Rota has interviewed the head of the Superior Institute of Health.

No one has been placed under official investigation to date, and it’s unclear what, if any, criminal blame will be assigned to public officials for decisions taken or not in Italy, the onetime epicenter of Europe’s COVID-19 outbreak.

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Among other things, the probe is looking into whether it fell to the national government in Rome, or the Lombardy regional authorities, to create a so-called red zone around the two towns.

After interviewing Lombardy regional officials last month, Rota said it appeared it was the national government’s responsibility. But Conte’s office has pointed to norms that delegate such authority to regions, and noted that other regions had instituted red zones on their own.

Something went very wrong in Lombardy, the area of Europe hardest hit by the virus. Virologists and epidemiologists say it will be studied for years.

Italy registered its first domestic positive case Feb. 21 in Lombardy’s Lodi province. Ten towns in the province, as well as a handful of towns outside Lombardy, were immediately locked down by the national government to try to contain the spread.

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Alzano and Nembro registered their first positive cases two days later, Feb. 23, but the government didn’t quarantine them for two weeks until all of Lombardy was locked down March 7.

Asked if, in hindsight, he should have locked down sooner, Conte told the newspaper La Stampa that he was at peace with the decisions taken. “I acted based on science and conscience,” he was quoted as saying in Friday’s paper.

On March 3, the Superior Institute of Health recommended a red zone around Alzano and Nembro. But around the same time, the Bergamo branch of Italy’s leading business lobby, Confindustria, promoted an English-language social media campaign meant to reassure Bergamo’s international industrial partners.

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The #BergamoIsRunning campaign insisted that the outbreak was no worse there than elsewhere, that the “misleading sensation” of its high number of infections was due to aggressive testing and that production in steel mills and other industries was unaffected.

Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori initially supported the campaign but now says he regrets not having locked down sooner. But he said that, at the time, no one knew the extent of contagion or that the coronavirus had been circulating widely in Bergamo as early as January.

“We didn’t lose five days — we lost two months,” Gori told the foreign press association this week.

He noted that Italy’s health ministry issued a circular Jan. 22 instructing local health authorities to flag any cases of anomalous pneumonia as possible coronavirus cases that should be tested. On Jan. 27, the health ministry amended that instruction to test only pneumonia patients who had visited China or been in direct contact with someone who had.

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The narrowing of criteria “restricted the field of observation and impeded Italy, Lombardy and Bergamo from recognizing that the epidemic was already here many weeks before it was officially recognized,” he said.

In a separate investigation, at least 50 families who lost loved ones to the virus have provided Bergamo prosecutors with formal legal complaints to seek clarity if there was wrongdoing in any of the cases.

Stefano Fusco, who helped organize a Facebook group at the peak of the epidemic that collected stories of loss, said that they are not aimed at prosecuting individual healthcare workers but revealing where the system might have failed.


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