Italian Prime Minister Says 'Political Choices Must Be Based on Scientific Evidence' in COVID-19 Response

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his nation's lockdown will continue into the foreseeable future and that the decisions made by his government must continue following the advice of health officials surrounding the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 15,000 lives in what has become the European epicenter of the pandemic.

Speaking from Rome, Conte said his country's resolve was under strain as the death toll mounted, among them Giorgio Guastamacchia, 52, a member of Conte's bodyguards who had been sick since mid-March.

"We are suffering very much, more than 15,000 Italian lives lost to their dear ones, to our society, to our nation," Conte told host Chuck Todd in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press. "Since the very beginning of the pandemic, Italy has put public health first," Conte said. "We've adopted very strict measures."

On March 8, Northern Italian cities and towns went into lockdown. A day later, the lockdown was extended to the country's 60 million citizens.

Despite early warnings, the healthcare system was slow to react, often mistaken symptoms of COVID-19--the disease caused by the novel virus--for the common flu. Soon the northern region of the country, often referred to as the nation's economic engine, was inundated with cases, in part because of the brief lifting of a lockdown in Milan, in the northern Lombardy region. The mayor of Milan had let bars remain open as part of a campaign with the slogan "Milan Doesn't Stop."

"Political choices must be based on scientific evidence," Conte told Todd in the Sunday morning interview, and said that the implementation of any decisions must be carried out with the greatest transparency.

Nearly a month into the extended quarantine, military personnel have distributed face masks and carabinieri check documents of anyone traveling outside their homes.

Fewer cases have been reported in recent days, Conte said, adding that he has closely followed the advice and guidelines of the World Health Organization. "The results so far indicate that we are on the right path," Conte said.

Though Italy has begun flattening its curve and lowering the rate of daily deaths and contracted cases thanks to increased testing (the northern Veneto region is testing roughly 20,000 residents each day), Conte believes the lockdown must continue to fully squelch the spread and a possible return.

"I cannot say when the lockdown will stop," Conte said. "We are following the suggestions of our scientists. Italy has been the first country in Europe that, of course, faced this pandemic. Our response has not been perfect, maybe, but we've been acting on the best of our knowledge."

Nations around Europe have looked to Italy as a cautionary tale, often weighing their own response in contract to Italy's. On April 1, Vice President Mike Pence told CNN: "We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point."

In his interview with Todd, Conte thanked the President Donald Trump and the American people for their continued support and underscored the necessity for Italians to remain indoors and to put faith into the government's work.

"Stay home as much as possible. Do not go out," Conte advised. "We're asking our people a great sacrifice. I'm aware of it. But it is the only way to defeat the pandemic all together."