Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

U.K. Not Included In Trump's European Travel Ban, Even As COVID-19 Spreads There


Different countries are taking starkly different approaches to handling the coronavirus pandemic. Ireland announced today that it's closing universities and schools and banning large public events. Meanwhile, its neighbor, the United Kingdom, said it's holding off on such draconian policies even as the number of cases there grows.

To discuss this, as well as President Trump's European travel ban, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hi, Frank.


SHAPIRO: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country today. What did he say?

LANGFITT: Well, he says right now there are about 600 cases - but - that they have, but in reality, it's probably closer to five to 10,000 that are undetected. The peak is about four weeks away from where Italy is right now. And what he's decided to do is not these social distancing policies that we're seeing in Ireland like closing schools, things like that, until he thinks they're absolutely needed and when he says they'll do the most good. And one of his concerns is that people are going to get tired of this, and they're not going to stick to it. And he also - I've got to say, Ari, he used the starkest language yet about this crisis. This is what he said.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I must level with you, level with the British public. More families - many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Well, President Trump, for his part, shocked most of Europe last night, saying he was banning travel from 26 European countries, but not the U.K. and Ireland. Why not?

LANGFITT: Well, the president was asked about this today. And he said that the U.K. is doing a very good job controlling the virus. The countries that were banned are in the Schengen free travel area in Europe. So people can just travel across the borders no problem. The U.K. and Ireland are not. They have control of their borders. That could have been a reason. The other thing is Johnson and Trump have a close relationship. They're both populists, nationalists. And they're also very focused on strong borders.

SHAPIRO: So President Trump thinks the U.K. is doing a good job. How do the British people think their government is doing?

LANGFITT: You know, Ari, there's a lot of anxiety and certainly quite a bit of criticism. And what we heard today is only going to - I think there will only be more. Ordinary people and some public health experts I've been talking to feel that the government is moving too slowly. Just today in The Guardian, a guy named John Ashton - he's a former regional director for public health here - he called the response so far pathetic. And he said officials are, quote, "behaving like 19th century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket."

I spoke yesterday with a guy named Walter Ricciardi. He's advising the Italian government in the last couple of weeks on this crisis in Italy. And he said, given the experience there, he's surprised and somewhat concerned and thinks what he's seeing here is kind of a delayed response.

WALTER RICCIARDI: I'm worried for the British people. Italy was with 20 cases at the beginning of three weeks ago, and now we have almost 10,000 cases. So it's exponential growth. And if you don't - are aware of this speed, I think you can really be in trouble.

SHAPIRO: You know, Frank, England's National Health Service has been under financial pressure for years. Is the NHS prepared for a spike in cases if that's what comes?

LANGFITT: Well, there's a lot of concern inside the NHS. As you'd remember from the global financial crisis, there has been about a decade of cuts. And the estimate is there are a hundred, maybe as much as 100,000 vacancies for doctors and nurses here. Some doctors say if these coronavirus cases can be stretched out into the summer, that they don't really have a gigantic peak - and this is what the government is trying to do - that the NHS could handle it. But if there's a surge, they think the system will be overwhelmed.

I was talking to Rosena Allin-Khan. She's a member of Parliament with the opposition Labour Party, but she's also an emergency room doctor in South London. And this is what she told me.

ROSENA ALLIN-KHAN: I don't feel we are ready. And I feel that the government is to blame for their drastic under-resourcing for the last 10 years. There is no slack in the system. The system is already failing, and now we have an outbreak like this. I am worried.

LANGFITT: So, Ari, if there is a big surge in infections a few weeks from now, I think most people think it will test the system.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.