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Prime Minister Johnson And U.K. Health Secretary Test Positive For Coronavirus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The coronavirus has rocked the British government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his health secretary have tested positive, and the U.K.'s chief medical officer has symptoms and is self-isolating. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I can't think of any other major country whose government has been hit this hard by the disease. Put it into context for us.

LANGFITT: Yeah. You know, the political systems, of course, are different, so any comparison is going to be inexact. But I would say this would be like if President Trump and, maybe, the head of FEMA got the virus and Anthony Fauci was isolating at home with symptoms. Johnson - yeah, I mean, I think that it was a pretty shocking day. Johnson says he remains in charge. He's directing the response from Downing Street using video conferencing. The good news is all three of these British officials are reporting mild symptoms. But I got to say, in terms of public leadership, it's hard to imagine a worse scenario right now.

SHAPIRO: So Boris Johnson made this announcement in a cellphone video this morning. Has he been heard from since?

LANGFITT: No. We haven't seen anything from him since that. Both he and Chris Witty - he's the chief medical officer - they've been in near constant presence on these daily televised press conferences. Both were absent today. Instead, the conference was led by Michael Gove, who runs the U.K.'s Cabinet Office. Now, remember; we've been talking about this. Johnson has come under a lot of criticism. People feel he moved too slowly to lockdown the U.K. Since then, he's been preaching social distancing, telling people, of course, to stay at home. The reporters today asked the obvious question, which is, why weren't the prime minister and these other officials better protected? And one of the questions was, were they careless or negligent? Michael Gove didn't really have a direct answer to that. This was his response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL GOVE: The prime minister, succumbing to the virus, is a reminder of how seriously we all need to take the advice that the NHS has been giving us.

SHAPIRO: The NHS - that's the National Health Service. It's been underfunded and understaffed for years, so what's the government doing to build up capacity as cases of the coronavirus continue to grow?

LANGFITT: Well, they're already - yeah, Ari, they're already building a field hospital in London, in East London in the docklands. They announced today another couple of field hospitals at Birmingham and Manchester. These are in convention centers. They're going to start testing front line health workers. There was a lot of criticism because they weren't actually doing that. Right now, there are about 6,000 COVID-19 cases in the hospital. The death toll is around 760 in the country. But many doctors and nurses, Ari, are really worried. They talk about a tsunami of cases coming in the next week or two, perhaps. They don't have enough protective masks, enough ventilators. And last night, the government showed support for the health workers, leading cheers for the NHS. About 8 o'clock, people came out of their homes all over the country to applaud. And this is what it sounded like in our neighborhood.

(CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Frank Langfitt bringing us the sound of people supporting and cheering for their health care workers in London.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUZ J SONG "RESPIRATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.