By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government was left red-faced on Tuesday when a third health chief in Calabria quit in barely a week, leaving the southern region's hospitals rudderless and still lacking an emergency coronavirus plan.
The resignation of any senior state bureaucrat is unusual in Italy, where officials tend to cling to their jobs until retirement, but to see three throw in the towel in such swift succession is remarkably rare, if not unprecedented.
The rapid departures also raised questions about government oversight of one of Italy's poorest regions, which has been designated a coronavirus "red zone" partly because its hospitals are believed to be incapable of handling a major outbreak.
The latest governor, Eugenio Gaudio, resigned less than 24 hours after the cabinet had appointed him. Gaudio, who previously headed Rome's Sapienza University, said he had decided not to take the job because his wife did not want to move to Calabria.
"I have no intention of starting a family crisis," said Gaudio, whose candidacy had caused mutterings of discontent in Italy's ruling coalition after it emerged that he was under investigation for alleged irregularities in university hirings.
Gaudio has denied any wrongdoing
He had been called up to replace Giuseppe Zuccatelli, who had himself resigned barely a week into the job after a video emerged of him ridiculing the idea that mask wearing could curb COVID-19. He was also filmed saying people could only catch coronavirus if they kissed "with their tongues" for 15 minutes.
His predecessor Saverio Cotticelli quit on Nov. 7 after a disastrous television interview in which he acknowledged that the region did not have an emergency COVID-19 plan. He said it was not his responsibility, only to discover on air that it was.
Giorgia Meloni, head of the opposition Brothers of Italy party, accused Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of presiding over a "farce", while Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, called on Health Minister Roberto Speranza to resign.
The government made no immediate comment and it was not clear whether a second official called up to help in Calabria on Monday, disaster relief expert Gino Strada, was still willing to go.
Strada, a surgeon who founded the Emergency NGO which aids civilian victims of war, has expressed doubts about his appointment, saying he would not work in tandem with Gaudio and was not sure what the health ministry wanted him to do.
Italy's regions normally have control over their own health services, but Rome took charge of Calabria's heavily indebted system in 2010 amid accusations that the local mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, had infiltrated it and was milking it of cash.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Editing by Gareth Jones)