Relatives of coronavirus victims in Italy are taking legal action against the prime minister, health minister and the president of the Lombardy region for alleged criminal negligence over their handling of the pandemic.
The group of 500 families will file their civil lawsuit on Wednesday with prosecutors in the Lombardy province of Bergamo, which was badly hit during the first wave of the pandemic. They claim the three leaders – Giuseppe Conte, Roberto Speranza and Attilio Fontana respectively – have contributed to Italy’s almost 70,000 Covid-19 deaths.
The lawsuit focuses on the move by authorities to reopen a hospital in the Bergamo town of Alzano Lombardo, hours after an outbreak occurred there on 23 February – and subsequent failure to immediately quarantine the town, and the nearby town of Nembro, despite advice from scientists in early March.
A crucial element of the legal action will be the alleged absence of an updated national pandemic plan and failure by regional authorities to implement a local plan that was supposed to have been developed from the national one.
Consuelo Locati, the lawyer leading the case, is seeking €259,000 (£235,000) in compensation for each of the 500 families filing the lawsuit.
The legal move is being driven by members of Noi Denunceremo (We Will Report), a group for bereaved relatives that came together in April.
Noi Denunceremo’s committee has so far submitted 300 legal complaints, which detail how some of the victims died, to prosecutors in Bergamo who began an investigation into alleged negligence by the authorities in June.
Locati said the legal complaints did not identify crimes or culprits but that the research carried out in recent months “has allowed us to identify clear responsibilities”, triggering the civil action.
“The government and region are responsible for violating rules and for dereliction of duties,” added Locati. “The law obliged Italy to have an adequate national plan and for the regional authority to implement an adequate regional plan.”
Locati claims that not only was Italy’s pandemic plan severely outdated, but that it had never been tested to establish if it worked.
“They had no guidelines,” she said. “And even if [the old plan] was implemented it wouldn’t have worked as it lacked a series of steps that should have been followed in order to have been prepared for this pandemic.”
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic. That its pandemic plan dated back to 2006 was revealed in a report led by the World Health Organization (WHO) scientist Francesco Zambon into the country’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. The objective of the report was to provide information to countries that were yet to be affected.
The report was published on the WHO’s website on 13 May but taken down the following day, with all references to it deleted, the Guardian reported in August. The report’s removal allegedly came at the request of Ranieri Guerra, the WHO’s assistant director general for strategic initiatives.
Guerra was the director general for preventive health at the Italian health ministry between 2014 and late 2017, and was therefore responsible for updating the pandemic plan as per new guidelines laid out by the WHO and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Locati claims Lombardy, which has borne the brunt of the pandemic, had a regional plan that was not implemented. “Citizens gave the state and regional government the job of protecting their lives and they didn’t do it,” she said.
Locati, whose father died of Covid-19, added that the goal was not so much the financial compensation but for the authorities to take responsibility. “It might only be one euro, but what that one euro would demonstrate is responsibility and the admission of responsibility,” she said.
Luca Fusco, the president of the Noi Denunceremo committee, said: “The committee sees in this legal action a clear political act, and an attempt to draw a clear line between what is considered acceptable and what must never be acceptable.
“This legal action is our Christmas present to those who should have done [what they were supposed to do], but didn’t, while in Italy, on Christmas Day, there will be 70,000 empty chairs. With adequate planning, as requested over and over again by the EU and the WHO, we are certain there would have been far fewer.”