Italian Covid bereaved want inquiry extended beyond early outbreak

Relatives of coronavirus victims in Italy are pushing for a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic as documents from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) show the first Covid-19 cases registered in 16 European countries originated from Italy.

Italy was the first western country to report an outbreak and has the second highest Covid-related death toll (131,335) in Europe after the UK (137,763).

The first local transmission of the infection was diagnosed in Codogno, a Lombardy town south of Milan, on 21 February 2020. But a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the government’s handling of coronavirus will only focus on the period until 30 January 2020, the day before a national emergency was declared.

The inquiry will look into the initial outbreaks in countries such as China and the appropriateness of measures adopted by those states and the World Health Organization (WHO) to avoid contagion around the world.

It was originally intended to look more broadly at the government’s response to the pandemic, especially in the early stage as it scrambled to contain rapidly rising infections and deaths. But the cut-off date was imposed after amendments from politicians from the centre-left Democratic party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League, which were supported by the commission in July.

Thousands of bereaved relatives have signed a petition in recent days to widen the inquiry before its terms are rubber-stamped next week.

“We need to abolish these scandalous amendments, which are a slap in the face to the families of victims who only want to know what happened,” said Consuelo Locati, a lawyer representing more than 500 families who have brought legal proceedings against the government. She said a full inquiry would be beneficial in terms of learning from errors made and better preparing the country for future pandemics.

Locati pointed to documents from the ECDC, seen by the Guardian, that show 16 countries in Europe registered their first Covid-19 infections in people who had returned from Italy. The infections were recorded between 22 February 2020 and 7 March 2020, a few days before Italy went into full national lockdown.

Another document, dated 24 February 2020 and containing minutes from a European health security committee meeting, said “no exit screening [is] currently done in Italy”.

Locati said: “People were leaving our borders without being checked, which contributed to the spread of the virus in the rest of Europe – this is a serious fact that would emerge if a full inquiry was held.”

The only two parties to vote against the amendments to the inquiry were the centrist Italia Viva party, a small partner in the ruling coalition that includes the Democratic party, M5S and the League, and the opposition far-right Brothers of Italy.

According to minutes taken from a debate before the commission voted on the amendments on 8 July, Lisa Noja, a deputy with Italia Viva, said an in-depth study should be carried out “to understand what happened in the early stages of the pandemic, in order not to repeat the same mistakes”.

Among the parliamentarians to disagree were those from Brescia and Bergamo, the Lombardy town worst hit at the beginning of the pandemic, and Piero Fassino, from the Democratic party. “To extend the scope of the investigation of the public inquiry into the management of the pandemic by the Italian authorities [would have fed] the instrumental controversy that has already emerged in recent months,” Fassino said.

The commission is due to present its findings in 2023, when general elections are scheduled as well as a regional ballot in Lombardy, which is currently led by the League.

“It is clear that an inquiry of this kind would obviously compromise the results of the elections if the probe finds with certainty that there were responsibilities,” Locati said. “They are trying to offload responsibility as more information emerges, but they can no longer play this game.”

Paolo Casiraghi, who lives near Bergamo and lost three relatives to Covid-19 in March 2020, is among the people seeking compensation from the government in civil proceedings in Rome and has signed the petition pushing for a full inquiry.

“We need a more ample investigation as we need justice for innocent victims who suffered from the lack of preparedness of our country,” he said. “They told us everything was under control; instead, documents prove that this wasn’t the case.”

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