Government plans to herd elderly Italians into supermarkets to protect them from the summer heat sparked controversy yesterday, with critics saying the creation of a public register of those at risk violated their right to privacy.
Opponents said the creation of an official catalogue of the "fragile" insulted the dignity of millions of pensioners who remained active and independent.
Girolamo Sirchia, the Health minister, has instructed local authorities to draw up a list of all Italians over the age of 65 whose health might be at risk in the event of a summer heatwave.
It has been suggested that they could then easily be moved to supermarkets and other public places with air conditioning.
Italy has one of the oldest populations in Europe and those on the list could number as many as 12 million, or one in four of the population. Mr Sirchia's order, accompanied by some commonsense tips on how to stay cool, was prompted by the exceptional heat that eenveloped Europe last year.
More than 7,500 old people died as a result of the heat in Italy, while as many as 60,000 perished in France in the course of a sweltering July.
Mr Sirchia, himself a sprightly 70-year-old, said the register was a first step to identify people at risk from the heat so that they could receive timely assistance and, if necessary, be moved to cooler premises.
A similar list is being drawn up in France but registration there is voluntary. After consulting Italy's Privacy Authority, Mr Sirchia decided the list could be drawn up without the consent of those involved.
Health officials believe about 10 per cent of the over-65s could represent a health risk and will seek to identify them by considering factors such as whether they live alone, in poor neighbourhoods, in apartment blocks without a lift and whether they had received recent hospital treatment. In an initial experiment, volunteers will be hired as "buddies" to keep an eye on the well-being of some 25,000 elderly people living in Rome, Milan, Genoa and Turin, the cities worst affected by last year's heatwave.
The suggestion that the elderly could be moved to supermarkets to benefit from their air conditioning has been met with particular derision. Dr Vincenzo Marigliano, a geriatric specialist from Rome's La Sapienza University said supermarket air conditioning was likely to be too strong and the places were stressful and inappropriate. "It would be much better to take the elderly to the cinema, for example."
The association of Italian town councils, which will have to implement the new order, described Mr Sirchia's initiative as "improvised and tardy". The organisation said it had been seeking a meeting with Mr Sirchia to discuss the problem since last summer. "The real question is: what do we do when we have this endless list of names in our hands?" said Fabio Sturani, the mayor of the beach resort of Ancona.
The UGL trade union was even more scathing: "The only cheaper way to fight the heat would be a rain dance."
Donato Greco, coordinator of the anti-heat campaign at the health ministry, defended the strategy. "We simply repeated the advice of the World Health Organisation, which recommends that in the event of unbearable and prolonged heat the elderly should be taken to places which have air conditioning," he told the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"We don't want to put granddad in the supermarket trolley, and anyone who says we do is guilty of ignoble deceit," Mr Greco added.Reuse content