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Boris Johnson Faces Criticism For The Late Coronavirus Response

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The No. 1 and the No. 2 in the world - that would be the United States and the United Kingdom - leading the world in coronavirus deaths. On both sides of the Atlantic, political leaders are struggling to chart the way forward out of lockdown. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared over the weekend and unveiled a new message.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives.

KELLY: Stay alert - a message that, so far, appears mostly to have confused people. Well, for more, we go to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What does stay alert actually mean? And tell me more about how this is being received.

LANGFITT: I think people are still puzzling over it. The earlier message they had was, stay at home; stay home. Everybody got that and mostly followed it until recently, with some sunny weekends we've had, but this one really has people really confused. And messaging is so important in all of this. Certainly, what we've seen also is Johnson talking about slowly beginning to lift the lockdown, telling people who can't work from home they should go to work - food production, construction, manufacturing people. But they will need to socially distance, so, perhaps, that's what he means by staying alert and staying aware of the coronavirus.

KELLY: So in the U.K., we have - you have been reporting on how it has been behind at testing, how it has struggled with having enough masks and other gear - I mean, all challenges that are familiar to those of us on this side of the pond. In the U.K., what has gone wrong?

LANGFITT: I think a lot of it comes down to not really thinking ahead on this and getting on top of it very quickly, recognizing how serious it was. You know, even with the stories out of China, the government downplayed the coronavirus. Boris Johnson - he left London for a country getaway with his fiancee back in February, managed, of course, to get it himself - the coronavirus. And now the death toll's up to over 30,000. Now, I was talking to people outside of London who've compared Britain's response to Germany's, which has only - Germany only has one-quarter of the deaths that we have in the United Kingdom. I was talking to a guy named James East (ph). He works for a global charity, and this was his analysis.

JAMES EAST: The Germans planned better. Their testing regime was much better. Angela Merkel - she is a scientist, a chemist herself. When you look at British politicians, they often come from journalism or they come from the legal profession or they're researchers or they've been local politicians.

LANGFITT: And, Mary Louise, what I think he's getting at here is talking about a different kind of skill set. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany - she's a technocrat. Boris Johnson's a former journalist, more of a political showman for sure. And this is a crisis where planning, competence, analysis is really crucial.

KELLY: I mean, let me put this just to you personally, Frank, as an American, obviously, but living and working in the U.K. - do you see parallels between how the British government and the American government are handling this crisis?

LANGFITT: Absolutely; I feel like I'm covering the same story but, basically, with a different accent. You have populist politicians who are not known for focusing on details, are very entertaining in their own way and larger-than-life to some degree. But what we're confronting here is - it's very high stakes. It's complex. It's science-based. And political spin and the kind of approach that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump often take - it may not be perfectly suited to this.

KELLY: The view from London from NPR's Frank Langfitt.

Thank you, Frank.

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