June 12, 2020 / 6:55 PM / a month ago

Italian prosecutors question PM Conte for three hours over coronavirus response

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was questioned by prosecutors on Friday about the country’s response to its coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 34,000 people.

FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wearing a protective face mask, leaves the Senate as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Rome, Italy May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

The prosecutors from Bergamo, one of the northern cities hit hardest by the pandemic, are looking into why badly affected small towns around the city were not locked down earlier in the outbreak, when infections were rising fast.

Conte, who was questioned as a witness for three hours in his office in Rome and is not under criminal investigation, later told reporters via his spokesman: “I wanted to explain every stage to the smallest detail.”

Prosecutors also questioned Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Health Minister Roberto Speranza.

In interviews with several Italian newspapers on Friday, Conte said he would tell prosecutors everything he knew and was not worried by the possibility he could be personally investigated.

If that did happen, it would be likely to weaken an already fractious coalition government and add fuel to already frequent speculation that Conte may be pushed out despite his high personal approval ratings in opinion polls.

Prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota said the meeting had taken place “in an atmosphere of great calm and institutional collaboration”.

The region of Lombardy, which includes Bergamo, was the original epicentre of Italy’s virus outbreak and has remained by far the worst hit of its 20 regions, accounting for about half of its total deaths and most new infections.

The decision not to isolate Bergamo and the surrounding towns has been one of the most contentious episodes, with the central government and Lombardy’s regional authorities each saying the other was responsible.

In Lombardy, which is led by the right-wing opposition League party, the Bergamo prosecutors have already interrogated the regional president and health chief.

League leader Matteo Salvini was quick to seek political capital from Conte’s interrogation, tweeting that it was Rome’s decision not to set up a so-called “red zone” to seal off Bergamo and enforce it with the army and police.

“Now we expect that Conte will at least apologise to the relatives and the friends of too many Bergamo citizens who have died,” he tweeted.

COVID-19 death rates and infections have subsided in Italy in recent weeks, but anger is still running high among residents of the towns and cities at the centre of the epidemic.

A group representing relatives of those who died in Bergamo asked prosecutors on Wednesday to investigate possible criminal responsibility in allowing contagion to run riot. [nL8N2DN5R6]

Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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