Italy launches COVID-19 inquiry panel, opposition afraid of witch hunt

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Italy’s lower house of parliament on Thursday backed a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the opposition voicing fears of a witch hunt against those in charge at the time.

Italy was the first Western nation hard hit by coronavirus in early 2020, and the center-left government of then prime minister Giuseppe Conte drew strong criticism from the right-wing opposition for its handling of the emergency.

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The house -- now dominated by rightist forces supporting the administration of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni -- approved a bill setting up the inquiry with 172 votes in favor. It will need final approval by the Senate.

“This is a political firing squad, for two people in particular. Giuseppe Conte and former health minister Roberto Speranza,” Conte himself, who now heads the opposition 5-Star Movement, told parliament.

After the result was announced, the coalition lawmakers shouted in chorus “truth, truth.” Most of the opposition refused to take part in the vote.

The World Health Organization has recorded more than 190,000 deaths from COVID-19 in Italy.

Italy is not the only country holding an inquiry into the pandemic management. An investigation was also ordered in Britain to look at how COVID-19 was handled and what mistakes were made.

A case against Conte and Speranza was dropped last month after prosecutors in the northern city of Bergamo - the epicenter of the Italian outbreak - had investigated the alleged initial mishandling of the crisis.

However, lawmakers felt a wide array of topics needed closer scrutiny from parliament, including why Italy had not updated a pandemic plan drawn up in 2006 and the legitimacy of the tough lockdown measures the government imposed.

Tommaso Foti, the lower house leader of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, said the COVID issue caused “doubts and pain” among Italians.

Both Conte and Speranza said the bill was designed to avoid pulling the regional authorities into the inquiry, despite them having strong powers in managing healthcare in Italy. Right-wing parties are in charge of most regional administrations.

“The way you wrapped this up is an insult to Italians, to the suffering of families,” Conte said.

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