Government divided over motorways contractor in wake of Genoa tragedy

A dispute over how the Italian government should handle its relationship with motorways operator Autostrade per l’Italia, the private company responsible for managing the collapsed Morandi Bridge viaduct in Genoa as well as most of Italy’s motorway system, is dividing the country’s leaders.

Government divided over motorways contractor in wake of Genoa tragedy
Matteo Salvini answers journalists as he visits the Morandi motorway bridge site one day after a section collapsed in Genoa on August 15, 2018. Photo: Andrea Leoni/AFP

Italy’s interior minister and co-deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League party, said Thursday he was ready to open a dialogue with the company, reports La Repubblica.

But his Five Star Movement counterpart, co-deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, has doubled down on his position that the government must revoke its contract with the motorways operator as soon as possible, creating tension within the cabinet.

“Anyone who doesn’t want this will have to go over my dead body,” Di Maio told the TV channel La7 Thursday evening.

Luigi Di Maio on LA7

READ ALSO: Atlantia, Italy's motorway operator with global ambitions under scrutiny

The viaduct collapsed shortly before noon on Tuesday during a storm, bringing down with it a section of the A10 freeway along with 35 cars and several trucks.

38 have been confirmed dead in the disaster, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Thursday, while Genoa's chief prosecutor has said that between 10 and 20 people are still missing.

The exact cause of the collapse is still unknown, but some bystanders said they saw lightning hit one of the support columns before it went down. The Morandi Bridge has been plagued with structural problems since it was first constructed in the 1960s.

At a press conference Wednesday Salvini, Di Maio, infrastructure and transport minister Danilo Toninelli, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte all said they would immediately revoke the government’s contract with Autostrade and fine the company 150 million euros.

But on Thursday it became clear that prematurely revoking the contract, which is not due to expire until 2042, will incur a penalty of between 15 and 20 billion euros unless the government can demonstrate that Autostrade was at fault.

The concessionaire, whose parent company Atlantia's share value plunged 22.26 percent yesterday, insisted it had met all its obligations in maintaining the structure.

READ ALSO: Revoking motorway contract 'could cost government billions'

Salvini has called on Autostrade to pay 500 million euros in compensation to the victims of the collapse and said his priority now is “to immediately obtain funds and interventions to support the relatives of the victims, the wounded, the 600 displaced and the whole community of Genoa.”

“We'll talk about the concession later,” he added.

Toninelli also appeared to have toned down the force of his rhetoric, writing in a Facebook post Thursday that the Ministry of Transport had commissioned an independent investigation into the collapse which will be concluded within one month and could lead to the “potential” revocation of Autostrade's contact.

The Transport Ministry said in a statement published to its website yesterday that it will issue a formal request to all of Italy's road, highway, and dam operators to provide the ministry with risk assessments for each of the structures by September 1.

READ ALSO: Search for survivors goes on as anger mounts over Italy bridge collapse



First cruise ship sets sail from Italy since coronavirus shutdown

The first major cruise ship to resume tours of the Mediterranean since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe set sail from the Italian city of Genoa on Sunday, as the industry tries to regain ground after a bruising hiatus.

First cruise ship sets sail from Italy since coronavirus shutdown
A photographer watches the MSC Grandiosa depart on Sunday August 16th, 2020, after more than six months of inactivity. Photo: AFP

The departure of the MSC Grandiosa from the northwestern port city at 1930 local time represents a high-stakes test for the global sector in the key Mediterranean market and beyond.

The international cruise industry has been battered not only by the ongoing health crisis which in March forced the worldwide grounding of its ships, but accusations of a botched handling of the epidemic in its early stages.

Cruise lines are hoping that new, tighter protocols will allow them to control the still-lingering threat of coronavirus aboard its ships while still offering travellers a cruise experience that does not disappoint.

Arriving passengers preparing to check in before taking a required coronavirus blood test inside the terminal told AFP they were not concerned about the virus. Some said they believed cruises were now safer than other vacation options.

“I couldn't miss the first cruise after Covid,” cruise blogger Rosalba Scarrone, 64, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Venice anti-cruise ship activists cheer temporary victory as liners pull out

“I've taken 87 cruises, can you imagine how much I've suffered not setting off from February until now?”

The Grandiosa is part of the fleet of privately-owned MSC Cruises, founded in Naples but now based in Geneva. The ship will travel to the ports of Civitavecchia near Rome, Naples, Palermo and Valletta, Malta during the seven-day cruise.

Competitor Costa Cruises, owned by Carnival, has opted to delay the restart of its Mediterranean cruises until September, with departures from Trieste and Genoa for Italian-only clients. The company said the measure was designed to “guarantee the maximum security for guests, crew and local communities.”

Fewer passengers

Much is riding on the decision to restart cruises. Italy represents the bulk of Europe's cruise industry, reaping 14.5 billion euros of revenue per year and supporting nearly 53,000 jobs, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

The group estimated a potential economic loss from suspended cruises throughout Europe could amount to about 25.5 billion euros.

“The voyage … represents a tangible sign of comeback for one of the fundamental economic industries of our city,” said Genoa Mayor Marco Bucci.

Over 2 million cruise passengers departed from the city last year.

Last week, Italy's government, which is striving to revive the country's moribund economy after a more than two-month lockdown, gave cruise operators the green light to begin operating again as of August 15. 

MSC authorities said approximately 2,500 passengers would be on its debut cruise, limited to about 70 percent of normal capacity.

All eyes in the industry will be on the Grandiosa after a smaller cruise operator, Norway's Hurtigruten, was forced earlier this month to suspend its newly restarted service after dozens of passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19.

Global health authorities criticised the industry's slow response to the spread of the virus at the onset of the crisis earlier this year before ships were grounded in March, from lax monitoring of crew, to continued operation of self-service buffets and gyms, to lack of personal protective equipment.

Buffet is served

As of June 11, 3,047 people were infected and 73 people died aboard 48 cruise ships affiliated with trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), according to Johns Hopkins University data, provided by CLIA.

Health authorities say close living and working spaces for crew, along with partially enclosed environments contributed to greater risk of infection on cruises than other venues.

MSC has suspended the rest of its Mediterranean cruises until October save for an August 29 cruise departing from the southern Italian port of Bari.

The company said its new security protocol exceeds national and industry standards, including daily temperatures taken and escorted trips in controlled groups for excursions.

Food from the buffet, a highlight of the cruise experience, will be served at passengers' tables.