Italian Prosecutors ‘to Question PM’ over Handling of Virus

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Italian lawyer Giuseppe Conte addresses journalists after a meeting with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella on May 23, 2018 at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome. Italy's president approved little-known lawyer Giuseppe Conte's nomination to be prime minister of a government formed by far-right and anti-establishment parties. / AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo PINTO

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.

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.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday evening, Conte said he would be interviewed by prosecutors on Friday.

– Conte ‘not worried’ –

“The things I have to say to the prosecutor, I will say to the prosecutor — I don’t want to anticipate,” he said.

“I will conscientiously set out all the facts of which I have knowledge. I am not at all worried.

“All investigations are welcome. The citizens have the right to know and we have the right to reply.”

The team, lead by chief prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota, has already questioned senior officials in Lombardy region, who say it was up to Rome to decide whether certain areas should be shut.

The region’s health minister, Giulio 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 failed to act, he said.

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

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

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.

– Salvini denounces ‘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 disorganized, 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 center-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.

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