June 10, 2020 / 5:55 PM / 23 days ago

Families of COVID victims in hard-hit Italian city seek judicial probe

MILAN (Reuters) - A group representing relatives of people who died of COVID-19 in Bergamo, one of Italy’s hardest-hit cities, asked prosecutors on Wednesday to investigate possible criminal responsibility in the management of the pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: The Upper Town of Bergamo is seen, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Bergamo, Italy May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo/File Photo

Consuelo Locati, a lawyer for the group, said around 40 requests were filed over the handling of the outbreak in Lombardy, the northern region which includes Bergamo and accounts for around half of Italy’s 34,000 deaths.

“People want an explanation,” Locati told Reuters. “They have given a signal to the justice system and they want to have confidence in the justice system because there’s a moral obligation in this.”

The aim was to identify those responsible for managing the response and determine whether criminal charges could be raised, she said, adding that once lawyers had time to prepare a case, a separate wave of civil lawsuits would be likely in September.

Regional authorities in Lombardy have faced angry criticism for failing to set up special isolated “red zones” quickly enough, and for leaving open a major hospital that became a centre of infection early in the crisis.

Bergamo prosecutors have already questioned Lombardy’s president, Attilio Fontana, and its health chief Giulio Gallera over a decision not to seal off badly affected areas in the city’s hinterland early in the outbreak.

This week they will question Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and top ministers on Friday.

Critics accuse the right-wing League party, which has dominated Lombardy’s politics for decades, of weakening the system by putting too much emphasis on big hospitals and starving local health services of resources.

When the pandemic struck, critics say, too many patients died because they were funnelled into hospitals only after developing serious symptoms, or left in nursing homes with inadequate care while overstretched local general practitioners went without adequate support.

Fontana has defended his government’s handling of the crisis, while admitting mistakes, saying general practitioners would henceforth receive more resources.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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