Former Italian PM faces investigation over Covid response

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte is set to undergo a judicial inquiry over claims his government's response to the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 was too slow.

Former Italian PM faces investigation over Covid response
Former Italian PM Giuseppe Conte will face an investigation over his government's response to the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Prosecutors in Bergamo, the northern city that was one of the epicentres of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, targeted Conte after wrapping up their three-year inquiry, according to media reports.

Conte, now president of the populist Five Star movement, was prime minister from 2018 to 2021 and oversaw the initial measures taken to halt the spread of what would become a global pandemic.

Investigating magistrates suspect that Conte and his government underestimated the contagiousness of Covid-19 even though available data showed that cases were spreading rapidly in Bergamo and the surrounding region.

They note that in early March 2020 the government did not create a “red zone” in two areas hit hardest by the outbreak, Nembro and Alzano Lombardo, even though security forces were ready to isolate the zone from the rest of the country.

READ ALSO: ‘Not offensive’: Italian minister defends Covid testing rule for China arrivals

Red zones had already been decreed in late February for around a dozen other nearby municipalities including Codogno, the town where the initial Covid case was reportedly found.

Conte’s health minister Roberto Speranza as well as the president of the Lombardy region, Attilio Fontana, are also under investigation, the reports said.

Bergamo prosecutors allege that according to scientific experts, earlier quarantines could have saved thousands of lives.

Conte, quoted by Il Corriere della Sera and other media outlets, said he was “unworried” by the inquiry, saying his government had acted “with the utmost commitment and responsibility during one of the most difficult moments of our republic.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Similar cases have been lodged against officials elsewhere, alleging that authorities failed to act quickly enough against a virus that has killed an estimated 6.8 million people worldwide since early 2020.

In January, France’s top court threw out a case against former health minister Agnes Buzyn, a trained doctor, over her allegedly “endangering the lives of others” by initially playing down the severity of Covid-19.

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Italy scraps abuse of office crime as opposition cries foul

Italy's magistrates and opposition parties denounced the repeal of the crime of abuse of office on Thursday, calling it a gift to the mafia and corrupt officials.

Italy scraps abuse of office crime as opposition cries foul

The decriminalisation measure was part of a package of justice reforms that passed the Chamber of Deputies by 199 votes to 102 on Wednesday.

The reform was spearheaded by Forza Italia, the party founded by former premier Silvio Berlusconi – whose long political career was marked by endless legal cases and accusations of cronyism and corruption.

READ ALSO: What are the controversial reforms Italians are protesting against?

Promoters of the reform argued that the law deterred public officials from making decisions involving tenders out of fear of being accused of abuse of office.

They also pointed to the fact that 80 percent of legal proceedings involving the crime were dismissed, and innocent officials disgraced.

The Italian legal code will retain anti-corruption laws linked to public contracts, though more restrictively worded.

“Illicit behaviour will continue to be prosecuted – there are still instruments in the penal code,” said Mariastella Gelmini, a former minister under Berlusconi who is now in a small centrist party.

READ ALSO: Rome in push to decriminalise abuse of office despite corruption fears

Also voting for the reform was the far-right Brothers of Italy and League parties, headed by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini respectively.

Three centrist parties also voted for the reform.

The Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement and the Greens and Left Alliance voted against it, holding up posters in parliament on Wednesday reading “Impunity for white-collar workers, shame on you!”

The respected former anti-mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho told the Corriere della Sera daily on Wednesday that citizens reporting public corruption “will no longer be protected by the law”.

“The citizen who must report the violation of the rules of a tender, or the bypassing of a hospital’s waiting lists or the illegal concession given to a neighbour to build where he couldn’t, will no longer have criminal protection,” he said.

He said that while serving as a prosecutor in Calabria – a poor southern region whose powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia is notorious for infiltrating public institutions and rigging tenders – “the mayors told us that thanks to the abuse of office [crime], they could say no to the ‘Ndrangheta’.”

“They said they couldn’t break the rules or they would be convicted.”