The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where Germany had success in fighting coronavirus, Britain stumbled

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson exited the hospital Sunday nearly a week after entering intensive care for coronavirus-related complications. But that spot of good news was darkened by a new dark milestone: His country’s official count of hospital deaths related to the virus surpassed 10,000 over the weekend.

Public health experts fear that Britain’s mortality rate may soon be or already is the highest in all of Europe, as pandemic-ravaged Italy and Spain slowly get to grips with the disease. Britain’s steady shift toward becoming the new European epicenter of the outbreak stands in stark contrast with nearby Germany, the only country on the continent with a bigger economy and whose government reported its first case around the same time as Johnson’s government.

In the second week of March, Johnson’s government justified its largely lax strategy — schools, restaurants and other major venues remained open, while only the elderly who were already infirm were advised to stay home — on the grounds that it was pursuing “herd immunity,” counting on Britain’s less vulnerable groups to contract the disease and become immune. Just days later, the government backtracked, its supposed pragmatism crashing against new worrying projections of hundreds of thousands of deaths should it not impose lockdowns and strict social-distancing measures.

Meanwhile, on March 11, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that 60 to 70 percent of her country could contract the virus. But that wasn’t a statement of resignation — Merkel said the challenge now was all about winning time, and her country’s federal, state and local authorities had already set about attempting to achieve that.

“Nearly three months since their first positive cases, Germany has conducted more than 1.3 million tests and contact tracing remains central to its strategy,” noted BuzzFeed News in a piece that presented a thorough timeline comparing both countries’ handling of the crisis. “The UK has carried out fewer than 335,000 tests and all but dropped attempts to aggressively trace contacts. About 3,000 people have died so far in Germany. More than 10,000 have died in the UK.”

Johnson’s proclivity for wartime bravura rings hollow in the midst of a public health emergency, especially when set against the more somber messaging of German politicians. “This pandemic is not a war,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an Easter Sunday address that urged patience and solidarity with other countries. “It does not pit nations against nations, or soldiers against soldiers. Rather, it is a test of our humanity."

Emily Haber, the German ambassador to the United States, waved away any notion of German exceptionalism amid the pandemic. “We can’t state there is a specific German template,” she said during an online briefing call last week with reporters organized by the Meridian International Center in Washington.

Haber pointed to a number of key factors that gave Germany an advantage in its preparations: the widespread mass testing program; a relatively young population that made up the initial bulk of covid-19 cases and mostly survived; and the benefit of time to expand intensive care facilities and build up stockpiles of medical equipment.

“We were able to prepare because we were not the first country in Europe affected, and we saw and could analyze developments elsewhere,” Haber said, adding that the “well-oiled machinery” of the country’s universal health-care system and effective coordination between the federal government and local and state agencies helped. Germany’s hospitals still have a surfeit of available beds for coronavirus-positive patients and may not face the same pressures that buckled health-care systems in other European countries.

Compared with Britain, Germany gave itself a real head start in testing. “The people [they were in contact with] were also traced and tested repeatedly and they were isolated as well,” Evangelos Kotsopoulos, spokesman for the German Association of Accredited Laboratories, told the BBC, adding that it helped “flatten the curve a bit and slowed down the rate of infection.”

“Rather than following countries like South Korea in taking immediate draconian action to stop the disease — including the use of mass testing — Johnson’s team thought a more modulated approach would ultimately save more lives and cause less economic harm,” the Financial Times detailed in a piece on the government’s early missteps.

Now, Britain finds itself playing catch-up while lacking key German advantages: a sophisticated and sizable biotech industry that helped fast-track widespread testing, and a decentralized political structure that — unlike, say, its equivalent in the United States — effectively enabled private laboratories and local and state-level agencies to take the lead on implementing testing. “While Germany broadened its testing strategy to cover all those with mild symptoms — the core of a strategy to test, trace and isolate people infected with the virus — by March, Britain was struggling to scale up,” the FT noted.

“We have the best scientific labs in the world but we did not have the scale,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC. “My German counterpart, for instance, could call upon 100 testing labs ready and waiting when the crisis struck, thanks in large part to Roche, one of the biggest diagnostic companies in the world.”

As Johnson continues his recovery, he faces an altogether different national challenge in 2020 than the one he had set out to achieve: Brexit. “The pandemic may yet prove to be this calamity. Perhaps history or the electorate will judge him for not taking it seriously enough, for acting too slowly or too reluctantly,” the Atlantic’s Tom McTague wrote in an essay that touched on the “sense of destiny” that seemed to tail the prime minister’s political career.

McTague added: Johnson’s “sudden deterioration came just as things in the country at large were getting worse. Johnson had not been laid low saving the day like Horatio Nelson, leading Britain through its modern-day Battle of Trafalgar. Instead, he appeared to be living the crisis itself.”

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