Prosecutors went to question Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Friday about the lack of a coronavirus lockdown on two towns in northern Italy's Lombardy region that became one of the hardest-hit areas of the country's outbreak.
Doctors and virologists have said the two-week delay in quarantining Alzano and Nembro helped allow the virus to spread in Bergamo province, which saw a 571% increase in excess deaths in March compared with the average of the previous five years.
Lead prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota arrived with a team of aides morning at the premier's office in Rome, Palazzo Chigi, on Friday morning. In addition to Conte, she is expected to question the health and interior ministers. In previous days, Rota has interviewed the head of the Superior Institute of Health.
To date, no one has been placed under investigation and it's unclear what, if any, criminal responsibility might be assigned to public officials for decisions taken or not in the onetime epicentre of Europe's outbreak.
Among other things, the probe is looking into whether it fell to the national government in Rome, or the Lombardy regional authorities, to create a so-called "red zone" around the two towns.
After interviewing Lombardy regional officials last month, Rota said it appeared it was the national government's responsibility. But Conte's office has pointed to norms that delegate such authority to regions, and noted that other regions have instituted "red zones" on their own.
Italy registered its first domestic positive case on February 21 in the Lombardy province of Lodi. Ten towns in the province were immediately locked down to try to contain the spread.
Alzano and Nembro registered their first positive cases two days later, on February 23, but the government didn't quarantine them for two weeks until all of Lombardy was locked down March 7.
Asked if, in hindsight, he should have locked down sooner, Conte told La Stampa daily Friday that he was at peace with the decisions taken. "I acted based on science and conscience," he was quoted as saying.
On March 3, the Superior Institute of Health recommended a "red zone" around Alzano and Nembro. But in those same days, the Bergamo branch of Italy's leading business lobby, Confindustria, promoted an English-language social media campaign meant to reassure Bergamo's international industrial partners.