By Elvira Pollina
MILAN (Reuters) - The health chief in Italy's wealthy Lombardy region, one of the areas of the world hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, left office on Friday after months of criticism over his handling of the medical crisis.
Giulio Gallera is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and was part of a local government headed by the far-right League, which is led by Matteo Salvini.
His departure comes as Lombardy struggles to ramp up its vaccination campaign against COVID-19, with latest figures showing it had used just 22% of the vaccines at its disposal while other regions, such as Veneto and Tuscany, were close to 60%.
Gallera defended the sluggish start by saying he did not want doctors to interrupt their New Year holidays to help out. His comments drew widespread criticism in a region that accounts for a third of Italy's 77,300 registered COVID-19 deaths.
"In these months, Gallera has done a very tough job. He is extremely tired and agreed to this change," said regional head Attilio Fontana, who has also been criticised for failing to bring the virus under control.
Gallera will be replaced by Letizia Moratti, a former mayor of the regional capital Milan. "Our aim is to relaunch Lombardy," Fontana told reporters.
Before COVID-19 struck, Lombardy's health system was rated as one of the world's most efficient. However, the rapid diffusion of the virus has cast a cloud over the so-called Lombardy model, which puts great emphasis on hospitals while cutting back on the grassroots network of general practitioners.
Gallera's departure came on the day the health ministry said Lombardy and four other regions - Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Sicily and Calabria - would face tough restrictions for at least one more week to try to curb another spike in COVID-19 cases.
(Editing by Angelo Amante, Crispian Balmer and Timothy Heritage)