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Coronavirus Will Test U.K.'s National Health Service

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So that's the news from mainland Europe. Now let's go to the United Kingdom, where NPR's Frank Langfitt is standing by in London. Hi, Frank.

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

INSKEEP: Is this right? The U.K. is not closing schools, not banning big events?

LANGFITT: That's true. Yeah. It's taking a much slower approach than what we're seeing in the places Rob was just talking about. And basically, what they're saying here is they don't want to put in these very strict measures in part because they think that they're a number of weeks behind Italy. They don't need them right now. And they're also concerned that people will not actually stick to them. Chris Whitty - he's England's chief medical officer. He says he wants to save those tactics for when he thinks they're going to be most effective and sustainable. This is what he said last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS WHITTY: If people go too early, they become very fatigued. This is going to be a long haul. It is very important we do not start things in advance of need.

LANGFITT: And the thing is, Steve, this strategy has come under a lot of criticism here. More than 200 scientists wrote an open letter on Saturday demanding tougher, quicker actions. They're worried that the cases are going to explode and swamp the National Health Service here.

INSKEEP: Well, how concerned are doctors in that National Health Service? - which, we should note for people here in the United States, is a national health care system?

LANGFITT: Yeah. They're very concerned about capacity. I've been talking to doctors off and on for the last week. One, her name is Rosena Allin-Khan, she gave this description, which I think is very familiar to anyone who's been talking to NHS doctors.

ROSENA ALLIN-KHAN: I see, when I do shifts on the frontline, the real impacts of this shortfall in resources. We don't have enough nurses. We have people waiting far too long for operations.

LANGFITT: Allin-Khan - she's an emergency room doctor in South London. She's also a parliamentarian in the opposition Labour Party. And she thinks the government could be headed for a reckoning.

ALLIN-KHAN: I believe this outbreak is really going to expose the gaping chasms - not even just cracks but the gaping chasms - in the NHS.

LANGFITT: And, you know, patients are pretty anxious, too. Last week, we talked to an accountant. Her name is Monica Lacombe Dieppe (ph). She was outside a hospital along the River Thames. And she was just saying it's really hard to get a doctor just to treat her daughter's allergies.

MONICA LACOMBE DIEPPE: I think NHS is already stretched as they are. Getting a simple GP appointment is a miracle. I know we're struggling. We were struggling to get help as it is on a normal Monday morning.

LANGFITT: Now, the NHS, it's an institution in this country. It's funded by the taxpayers and provides everything from annual physicals to cancer surgery at no cost to users. But, you know, after the global financial crisis, the U.K. government really cut funding increases. Prime Minister Boris Johnson - he said last week he hopes to push the peak of coronavirus cases into late spring to avoid flooding the system.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: If we delay the peak even by a few weeks, then our NHS will be in a stronger state as the weather improves and fewer people suffer from normal respiratory diseases. More beds are available. And we'll have more time for medical research.

LANGFITT: Brandt Daniel (ph), he's a critical care doctor that we talked to. He says if the government's plan doesn't work, the U.K. could come to resemble parts of Italy.

BRANDT DANIEL: If we're unable to change public behavior and we see a rapid spread, then the NHS is very quickly going to find itself overwhelmed, as has happened in Lombardy.

LANGFITT: In Britain's House of Commons last week, Ed Davey - he's a member of Parliament with the Liberal Democrats - he confronted Johnson over health care funding.

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ED DAVEY: Given the NHS has to face the coronavirus challenge with a record shortage of nurses and the care sector with over 120,000 vacancies, does the prime minister not agree that the three Conservative governments since 2015 should've fixed the roof when the sun was shining?

JOHNSON: There are now actually a record number of doctors and nurses in our fantastic NHS.

LANGFITT: Watching the NHS struggle has been tough for a lot of Britons because it has a special place in people's hearts here.

SIVA ANANDACIVA: When you do polls, it regularly comes out at the top of the things that make us proudest to be British.

LANGFITT: This is Siva Anandaciva. He's a chief analyst at The King's Fund, a health care think tank.

ANANDACIVA: Something that is comprehensive, universal and free at the point of use as a social construct, I think, speaks to something in the British identity about a sense of fairness, about a sense of everyone being in it together.

INSKEEP: One of the people talking with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is still on the line. And Frank, if schools are not closed, if events are not ending, is life as normal there?

LANGFITT: No. People are avoiding public transit. I just went to the train station in our town. Passenger traffic's down two-thirds. People are out talking. But a lot of people now are self-isolating. They're not listening to the government. They're, frankly, Steve, doing it themselves.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Thanks.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "W. 16TH ST.") 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.