Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

U.K. Surpasses Italy To Lead Europe In Recorded Coronavirus Deaths


Some bad news from the U.K. this morning - Britain now has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe. And a top scientific adviser to the U.K. and the U.S. has had to resign because he was caught violating lockdown. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt is on the line. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is the death toll now in the U.K. and what's the British government saying about it?

LANGFITT: Well, right now it's over 32,000 people; the government here calling it a massive tragedy, but actually kind of trying to downplay the figures, saying maybe it's not quite fair to compare Italy, which of course, up until yesterday was the highest number here in Europe, saying the U.K. has denser cities. Yesterday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, this was the defense that he gave to the press in the daily press conference.


DOMINIC RAAB: I don't think we'll get a real verdict on how well countries have done until the pandemic is over and, in particularly, until we've got comprehensive international data on all-cause mortality.

LANGFITT: Now, you know, Dominic Raab is right; we don't know the final tally. But, of course, we are talking about individual lives here. And symbolically, this is a big blow to the government. The Daily Mirror - it's a tabloid newspaper here - this is how it put it in a headline today; from bad to worst.

KING: Yeesh (ph). I mean, Frank, as you know well, before Brexit, the U.K. was really admired for solid, competent government.


KING: How did we get to this point?

LANGFITT: Well, slow to respond, not well prepared, certainly not enough PPE, far behind on testing. Here's a figure that I think's helpful. In early April, Germany was averaging 116,000 swab tests a day. Now it's a month later; the U.K. hasn't caught up, did about 70,000 - tested about 70,000 people as of yesterday. Also, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, didn't seem to take this that seriously initially. You know, back in early March, he was not actually taking precautions himself against COVID-19. This is what he said at a press conference back then.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I can tell you that I'm shaking hands - I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few - there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody.

LANGFITT: You know, we now know that, on that same day, the government's scientific advisers warned officials that they should be telling people not to be shaking hands, but here the prime minister was saying he wasn't actually doing this himself. Of course, the prime minister later did end up in an intensive care unit with COVID-19, but it's not believed to be from shaking hands at that time but contact later.

KING: And let me ask you about this scientific adviser who had to resign...


KING: ...Because he violated lockdown. He'd been preaching this is the thing you have to do. What's his deal?

LANGFITT: Yeah, we're talking about Neil Ferguson. He's actually quite famous, I think, now globally to some degree. He's at Imperial College London. It was his research that showed that, here in the U.K., that if they didn't do lockdown, as many as 250,000 people would die, and that actually drove Johnson to order the lockdown here. He also influenced policy in the United States. The Daily Telegraph reported that Ferguson had actually met twice with his lover, in violation of social distancing. Ferguson said that he already had COVID-19. He thought he was immune. But he admitted it was an error in judgment. And certainly, people here are seeing this as a double standard. Leaders, you know, people who are important to this policy, saying one thing but doing another.

KING: And then on Friday, Frank, the U.K. will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany. Is anybody going to be celebrating?

LANGFITT: Well, it's going to be pretty sobering. I mean, the - they were going to have a procession down to Buckingham Palace, a service at Westminster Cathedral. In this case, the queen will speak. People are going to come out, supposed to be encouraged to come out and raise a glass of champagne. But, you know, with World War II, there's been a lot of nostalgia here, the government talking about the great spirit in World War II. But now seeing that we now have a higher death toll than the rest of Europe, I think it's going to be a pretty sober day on Friday.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.

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