ROME — Prosecutors from the northern province of Bergamo spent three hours questioning Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Friday as they deepened their inquiry into whether officials' missteps helped magnify one of the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.
But it has reignited an emotional debate in Italy about the initial days of the coronavirus crisis and how officials, in Rome and in the country’s north, responded to early warning signs.
A rigid lockdown and other safety precautions eventually helped substantially slow the virus nationwide. But those restrictions were put in place only after a disaster had already been set in motion — nowhere more so than in Bergamo, where deaths in March were 568 percent above the 2015-to-2019 average and where military trucks lined up outside hospitals to carry away the dead.
Conte’s meeting with the prosecutors, who questioned him at the prime minister’s residence here, was not open to the public. Earlier in the week, he said he was “not worried at all” about the proceedings, and he has defended his handling of the crisis.
The inquiry in Bergamo is one of several unfolding across Europe that will help determine whether officials might face legal consequences for their strategies during the pandemic.
Spanish citizens last month filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his cabinet, alleging “homicide due to grave negligence” and citing a delay in adopting prevention measures. Elsewhere in Europe, tourists are joining in a class-action lawsuit accusing Austrian authorities of staying quiet about the virus and keeping ski resorts open as the outbreak came into plain view in neighboring Italy.
Italian officials have indicated that the Bergamo inquiry is looking mainly at the way two towns in the same valley, Alzano and Nembro, were handled as they emerged as hot spots in late February and early March. Those two places were not among the 11 lightly populated towns that Italy designated on Feb. 23 as sealed-off “red zones.” Almost immediately afterward, it became clear that many coronavirus cases in the country were occurring outside the red zones.
It wasn’t until March 8 that Conte announced a lockdown in all of Lombardy, the region that comprises Bergamo and 11 other provinces.
Luca Fusco, 58, an accountant who is leading a group of people demanding redress for the loss of loved ones to the virus, said that Bergamo’s high death toll stemmed from the two-week period before the lockdown.
“Closing the valley would have been easy,” said Fusco, whose group has filed complaints with the Bergamo prosecutors’ office. “If they had done that, there would likely have been many fewer deaths. We wouldn’t then have had to lock down the whole of Lombardy and then the whole of Italy, with all the consequences.”
In recent days, Italian newspapers have published detailed accounts of the days leading up to the broader lockdown. By late February, officials in Lombardy were expressing concern about Nembro and Alzano. Sometime between March 3 and 5, depending on the report, Italy’s national health institute recommended quarantining the two towns.
Conte instead imposed movement restrictions on Lombardy as a whole — 16 million people — on March 8. The nationwide lockdown, applying to Italy’s 60 million citizens, followed two days later. Lombardy accounts for about half of the nation’s coronavirus deaths.
Throughout the crisis, Conte has sparred with regional leaders in Lombardy, who belong to the far-right League, a major opposition party. They have maintained that it was up to the central government to designate towns as red zones. But the leader of another major region, Emilia-Romagna, said that he took the initiative to seal off towns and secured the central government’s consent later.
The lead Bergamo prosecutor, Maria Cristina Rota, met in late May with Attilio Fontana, the head of the Lombardy region. On Friday, she also interviewed Italy’s interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, and health minister, Roberto Speranza.