Italian regions accused of tampering with virus data ahead of reopening

One of Italy's top health experts has suggested Italy's regions may be fudging the infection data to avoid having to shut down again, sparking a furious row as the country prepares to restart travel from June 3rd.

Italian regions accused of tampering with virus data ahead of reopening
A medical worker conducts serological tests near Turin, in the northern Piedmont region. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, a growing number of health experts in Italy have been warning of “inconsistencies” with health data released by regional governments during the reopening phase.

Lombardy, by far the worst-hit region, was singled out for criticism, but the region's government angrily denied the claims and threatened to sue.

“There is a reasonable suspicion that the regions are using tricks so they don't have to close again,” Dr. Nino Cartabellotta, head of the Fondazione GIMBE, Italy's group for evidence-based medicine, told Radio 24 on Thursday.

READ ALSO: Italy's LombardyLiguria, and Piedmont regions 'not ready to reopen', study warns

In Lombardy, he said there had been “too many strange things about the data over the past three months”, including people counted as cured when they were released from hospital even when they were still sick.

He said there had also been certain days when few tests were carried out, and delays in the communication of data.

“It's as if there was a kind of necessity to keep diagnosed numbers under a certain level,” Cartabellotta said.

Photo: AFP

The Lombardy region said the accusations were “very serious, offensive and above all do not correspond to the truth”.

On Friday, Italian newspaper La Stampa said “dozens” of virologists over the past weeks have been “denouncing inconsistencies in the data because it underestimates” the number of infection cases.

And infectious disease expert Luigi Toma told Il Messaggero on Friday there was “something not right about the tracing and monitoring” of the virus, “in Lombardy, but also Piedmont and Liguria”.

INTERVIEW: “Italy's reopenings put economic interests before health protection”


The World Health Organization's Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi said there were “serious reasons to think the data is not reliable in some regions”.

It was “too soon to take a decision” on whether regions could reopen, he told the Repubblica newspaper on Friday, and Lombardy was a particular risk as it still had “20,000 people known to have the virus, as well asymptomatic cases”.

The warning came as Italy's health minister, Roberto Speranza, prepared to evaluate data from the ISS, Italy's Higher Health Institute, on new infections ahead of a final decision on resuming travel to and within Italy in early June.


But Gimbe warned on Thursday that its data analysis showed it was not yet safe to lift travel restrictions on the northern regions of Lombardy, Liguria, and Piedmont, as a further loosening of rules is scheduled for June 3.

From that date, free movement between regions is set to be allowed for the first time in three months, and some foreign travellers will be allowed back into the country.

The government has said it will intervene to keep some regions closed if they are still considered a contagion risk.

Three regions in the south – Campania, Sardinia, and Sicily – have threatened to enforce quarantine on people arriving from northern regions, or to ban them from entering altogether.

According to official figures, more than 33,000 people have died of the virus in Italy – nearly 16,000 of them in Lombardy alone.

The region recorded 382 new cases on Thursday, out of a national total of 593.

Despite being by far the worst-affected region since the beginning of the crisis, Lombardy's government has long been pushing for businesses to reopen as soon as possible.

In an interview with The Local last week, Cartabellotta questioned the accuracy of Italy's regionalized system of testing and data reporting, and accused the Italian government of putting economic interests “ahead of health protection” as it pushed ahead with reopening faster than previously planned.


Nuns walk in a cemetary in Lombardy during the coronavirus crisis.  Photo: AFP

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Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.