Italy allegedly misled the World Health Organization (WHO) on its readiness to face a pandemic less than three weeks before the country’s first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed.
Each year, countries bound by the International Health Regulations (IHR) – an international treaty to combat the global spread of disease – are required to file a self-assessment report to the WHO on the status of their preparedness for a health emergency.
Italy undertook its last self-assessment report on 4 February 2020. In section C8 of the report, seen by the Guardian, where countries have to evaluate their overall readiness to respond to a public health emergency, the author marks Italy in ‘level 5’, which is the highest status of preparedness.
The category states that a country’s “health sector emergency response coordination mechanism and incident management system linked with a national emergency operation centre have been tested and updated regularly”.
However, it emerged last year that Italy had not updated its national pandemic plan since 2006, a factor that may have contributed to at least 10,000 Covid-19 deaths during the first wave and which is a key element in an investigation into alleged errors by authorities being carried out by prosecutors in Bergamo, the Lombardy province that was severely affected in the pandemic’s early stage.
The self-assessment document has been given to the Bergamo prosecutors as additional evidence towards a civil lawsuit filed by the families of Covid-19 victims in December against leading politicians for alleged criminal negligence over their handling of the pandemic.
Italy’s first local coronavirus transmission was confirmed on 21 February in the Lombardy town of Codogno, and two days later an outbreak occurred in the hospital of the Bergamo town of Alzano Lombardo. But unlike Codogno, which was immediately quarantined along with nine other towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto, the Alzano Lombardo hospital was reopened a few hours after the outbreak while Bergamo province only went into lockdown with the entire Lombardy region two weeks later.
Bergamo prosecutors last year questioned Giuseppe Conte, who until earlier this month was prime minister; Roberto Speranza, the health minister; Luciana Lamorgese, the interior minister; and Attilio Fontana, president of the Lombardy region, as part of their investigations. They also questioned Giuseppe Ruocco, current general secretary for the health ministry and a general director of preventive health from 2012-2014, in January.
Conte, who was questioned by prosecutors last June, told the Guardian in an interview in October that, if summoned, he would be willing to be questioned again, but that he did everything he possibly could do manage a really difficult situation. Speranza, who was questioned last June and again in January, has not commented publicly on the investigation, neither have Lamorgese, Fontana or Ruocco.
Ruocco reportedly contradicted Italy’s self-assessment report of February 2020 by confirming to prosecutors that the pandemic plan was last drafted in 2006, despite the country being obliged to update the plan according to WHO guidelines in 2013 and 2018.
In an analysis of the self-assessment document compiled by Pier Paolo Lunelli, a retired army general, 60 out of 70 answers provided by Italy were judged to be “groundless”. Lunelli wrote in his analysis, which has been given to prosecutors, that the document “constitutes a castle of evidence which certifies the [level of] unpreparedness we approached the coronavirus emergency with”.
“We lied to the Italian citizens claiming we were ready,” added Lunelli. “Worse, we tried to deceive even the WHO, the EU and the ‘provident’ European countries, declaring to have capabilities which, in the light of the facts, we did not have.”
Italy, which was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, had registered 95,992 coronavirus-related deaths as of Monday – the highest toll in Europe after the UK.
Consuelo Locati, the lawyer representing the families behind the civil lawsuit, said the self-assessment report could represent “resounding evidence of all the premises for false representation”.
Locati is preparing to write to Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, to ask for a compensation law for the relatives of coronavirus victims.
Locati claimed that not only was Italy’s pandemic plan severely outdated, but that it had never been tested to establish if it worked.