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A Comparison Between German And U.K. Pandemic Responses

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.K. and Germany are both leading democracies and not far apart on the globe. They took very different approaches to the pandemic with very different results. The U.K. has suffered the most COVID-19 deaths in Europe. Germany, with a much bigger population, has lost far fewer people. NPR's correspondent in each country - Rob Schmitz in Berlin and Frank Langfitt in London - have been talking among themselves.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Frank. So tell me, what happened in the U.K.?

LANGFITT: There were so many mistakes. A big reason is the government, honestly, doesn't really seem to think ahead. Boris Johnson, you remember, he sold Brexit to the British people in 2016 with no plan on how to execute it. So when the virus began spreading here, Johnson - of course, he's now prime minister - he was slow to recognize the threat. Here he is on March 3.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: 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: So by April, Johnson's in an ICU with COVID-19. I was talking to Ian Boyd. He's a member of the scientific group that advises the government.

IAN BOYD: The U.K. didn't really grasp the speed with which the epidemic was entering the country. And there are all sorts of reasons for that, some of which are down to a lack of organizational capability. Sometimes when there's very high uncertainty, you simply have to shut things down really quickly.

SCHMITZ: And, Frank, here in Germany, that's what they did. On January 27, the first known case of coronavirus was sent to Dr. Clemens Wendtner, chief physician at the Munich Schwabing Clinic.

CLEMENS WENDTNER: We have very similar principle like the Boy Scouts - be always prepared.

SCHMITZ: Wendtner watched what was happening in Italy in January, where the virus was spreading pretty fast.

WENDTNER: And we knew that we have to flatten the curve.

SCHMITZ: So even before the first case of COVID-19 in Germany, he was working on slowing its progress. And he says the German government was involved from day one.

WENDTNER: They were asking us, what do you need? We didn't have to ask them.

SCHMITZ: For example, Germany already had a big supply of ICU beds. Klaus Gunter Deutsch is at the Federation of German Industries.

KLAUS GUNTER DEUTSCH: You know, there has been a long debate on whether we had too many intensive care beds that weren't used that often.

SCHMITZ: Obviously, that debate is over. Deutsch says Germany also has a lot of hospitals. If you take all the beds in all of Germany's hospitals, you get four times more per capita than what the U.K. has.

LANGFITT: Rob, you had slack in your system in Germany. There was not much here because the government had been cutting funding to the National Health Service for years. The hospitals were afraid of getting swamped with COVID patients, so they sent elderly patients back to nursing homes. Some brought COVID with them, infected other residents. At least 20,000 nursing home residents died of COVID.

SCHMITZ: That's terrible. And while in Germany, deaths were prevented through testing and contact tracing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: At the health authority in the Berlin district of Pankow, an operator talks to a man who's had contact with a positive case. There are around 400 call centers like this across Germany. Uwe Peters directs this one.

UWE PETERS: (Through interpreter) We have traffic wardens and librarians working for us. We've even recruited gardeners from Parks and Recreation.

SCHMITZ: Germany had a lot of manpower in testing, too, and infrastructure filled with labs and university medical centers across the country.

LANGFITT: You know, here, the government misread the coronavirus. They thought it was going to spread as quickly as the flu, so they didn't even try to develop a testing system. Rory Stewart, he's a former British cabinet minister.

RORY STEWART: They were very, very confident and slightly arrogant in their beliefs that they understood this disease better than other countries. I think the lack of scientific education amongst a lot of the British political elite meant that they were very reluctant to challenge the scientists.

SCHMITZ: But here in Germany, Frank, a trained scientist is at the helm. And Chancellor Angela Merkel gave one of the most powerful and heartfelt speeches in her life when she made a rare national address on March 18.

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CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) I have absolutely no doubt that we will overcome this crisis. But how many victims will it claim? How many loved ones will we lose? To a large extent, the answer lies in our own hands.

SCHMITZ: Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. And in another speech, she patiently explained how important it was for Germany to reduce the virus reproduction rate. Her tone was always humble and deadly serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Through interpreter) We are on thin ice. This is a fragile situation in which caution, not overconfidence, is the order of the day.

LANGFITT: Yeah, really different here. Johnson studied classics at Oxford University. He was president of the debating society. And as prime minister, he's tried to rally the country with rhetoric.

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JOHNSON: We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.

LANGFITT: Johnson's oratory helped win a landslide election last year. But a pandemic, of course, not a campaign. Here's Rory Stewart again.

STEWART: He sees himself as somebody who is encouraging a rugby team for a 90-minute match, telling them they're fantastic to make them play well. He doesn't primarily see himself as somebody whose job is to get into uncomfortable details.

LANGFITT: Or chew over policy and strategy.

SCHMITZ: But, Frank, it's this chewing over of policy and strategy, this technocratic nature of the German government that may have also contributed to Germany's success. Hans Kundnani is senior research fellow at Chatham House.

HANS KUNDNANI: There's this sort of doubling down on technocracy, you know, this idea that sort of populism has now been discredited by the coronavirus.

SCHMITZ: He says that's potentially dangerous because if technocrats feel too emboldened, there might be an even bigger global populist backlash in the future.

LANGFITT: Some people will blame Johnson for Britain's handling of COVID. But John Kampfner, he thinks Johnson's more symptom than cause. Kampfner's just written a book called "Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes From A Grown-Up Country."

JOHN KAMPFNER: We've descended into believing that somehow, because we always muddled through in the past, muddling through is a recipe that will get us through in the future.

LANGFITT: So Rob, where's Germany now with the coronavirus?

SCHMITZ: Well, cases are rising, deaths are not. That tells us these new cases are from young people. Children across the country are back in classrooms. But the German government seems, so far, OK with the dangers of this. There remains a strong infrastructure of hospital beds, testing, tracing. Germany feels prepared. And Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity ratings are sky-high, 86%.

LANGFITT: Wow. Cases here are rising rapidly, too. We've got new restrictions. But Johnson actually had trouble explaining them to the nation recently. The last surveys, Rob, Johnson is under 40% approval rating. Testing capacity here still can't meet demand. And winter's coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "BIRDWOMAN")

INSKEEP: NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt and Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.