Political opponents, scientists and even usually supportive newspapers lambasted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday over his government's broken promises on wider testing for the COVID-19 virus.
Johnson's Conservative government vowed weeks ago to rapidly increase the number of tests for the new coronavirus to 10,000 a day, then 25,000 a day by mid-April. But progress has been slow. The government says 10,412 tests were performed Tuesday, the first time the daily target was met.
Like some other countries, the U.K. has limited virus testing to hospitalized patients, leaving people with milder symptoms unsure whether they were infected. Many scientists say wider testing — especially of health care workers — would allow medics who are off work with symptoms to return if their results are negative, and would give a better picture of how the virus spreads.
Johnson tested positive for the virus a week ago and revealed last Friday that he had mild symptoms of COVID-19 disease. He has continued working while in self-isolation and promised in a video message that the government was "massively increasing testing."
Testing "is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end," Johnson said.
Opinion polls suggest Britons have been largely supportive of the government's efforts to contain the new coronavirus. Johnson ordered residents to stay home except for a handful of permitted circumstances and ordered the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops.
But as the number of virus-related deaths in the U.K. accelerated in recent days, the unity behind the government's response is shattering. The country had more than 29,800 cases and more than 2,350 deaths as of Thursday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper slammed the "testing fiasco" on its front page Thursday. "Questions without Answers," said the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, accusing the government of being unable to say why Britain lagged behind its European neighbors on testing.
Critics compare Britain's approach to testing unfavorably to the one in Germany, which has the ability to test 500,000 people a week and has reported fewer deaths among people with the virus
The government says testing front-line health care workers is a priority, and it set up five drive-through test centers to do it. But they had tested only 2,800 people by Thursday, from a National Health Service workforce of more than 1 million.
Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, acknowledged that "everybody involved is frustrated that we haven't got to the place where we've got to get to."
Part of the problem is Britain's centralized state-funded health system, which is fairly efficient at organizing hospital treatment but poor at rapidly boosting testing capacity. All coronavirus tests were initially processed at a single Public Health England laboratory, though several other public labs are now also handling the tests.
British officials also blame shortages of swabs to take samples and of chemicals known as reagents, which are needed to perform the tests, for the delay in ramping up testing.
But private-sector firms and academic institutes say their offers of help have so far been ignored.
Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research, said its laboratory had been repurposed so it could carry out 500 tests a day by next week, rising to 2,000 a day in future.
He compared the effort required to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops from the French port of Dunkirk as it was overrun by German forces in 1940 — a rescue that saw hundreds of small private boats join the navy in plucking soldiers from the beaches.
"We are a lot of little boats. and the little boats can be effective," Nurse said. "The government has put some big boats, destroyers in place. That's a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well."
The state finance minister of Germany's Hesse region, which includes Frankfurt, has been found dead. Authorities said he appears to have killed himself and the state's governor suggested Sunday that he was in despair over the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
The body of Thomas Schaefer, a 54-year-old member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, was found Saturday on railway tracks at Hochheim, near Frankfurt.
Police and prosecutors said that factors including questioning of witnesses and their own observations at the scene led them to conclude that Schaefer killed himself.
State governor Volker Bouffier linked Schaefer's death to the virus crisis on Sunday.
Bouffier said Schaefer was worried about "whether it would be possible to succeed in fulfilling the population's huge expectations, particularly of financial help."
"I have to assume that these worries overwhelmed him," Bouffier said. "He apparently couldn't find a way out. He was in despair and left us."
Germany's federal and state governments have drawn up huge aid packages to cushion the blow of largely shutting down public life to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Schaefer had been Hesse's state finance minister for a decade.
The cumulative number of coronavirus cases in Italy reached 86,498 on Friday, exceeding the total figure registered in China, according to data by the Civil Protection Department coordinating the national emergency response.
The pandemic also claimed 969 lives, a new single-day record high in fatalities registered here since the outbreak hit the country's northern regions on Feb. 21.
The death toll grew to 9,134, with 50 fatalities occurred on Thursday and not yet included in the total figure, national commissioner for the emergency Domenico Arcuri explained at a daily press conference.
In unveiling the new statistics, Arcuri took the place of extraordinary commissioner and Civil Protection Department Chief Angelo Borrelli, who was under home confinement for the second day in a row due to fever (but negative for coronavirus).
According to the data, 589 new cured people were registered on a daily basis, bringing total recoveries to 10,950.
With 4,401 people tested positive on Friday, the number of active coronavirus infections grew to 66,414. "About 6 percent of the total, or 3,732 patients, are currently in intensive care," Arcuri explained.
According to epidemiological data released by the National Health Institute (ISS) on Friday (and based on data up to Thursday), at least 6,414 health professionals were among those positive for the coronavirus so far.
"They have an average age of 49 years, and some 35 percent of them are male," the ISS wrote in a bulletin.
At the press conference, the commissioner stressed statistics in Italy and in many other places around the world "prove how global and wide this health crisis is."
"In a global crisis, there is a clear need of cooperation, without egoism, and Italy is playing its due part," he stressed.
Arcuri also recalled Italian authorities were putting much effort in trying to find and purchase equipment and protective gear necessary in the emergency from as many countries as possible.
"We keep cooperating with many countries, and keep buying (equipment) from France, Germany, China, and Russia... while talks are under way with further countries, which are often located very far from us," he said.
"This is the time of cooperation and solidarity, with no further implication, whether of political or geographical nature. Wherever there is a chance to obtain solutions to our citizens' problems... that is the right place to go," he stressed.
Arcuri said all Italian productive and social actors have been called to give their contribution to strengthen industrial production and help the country become more self-sufficient in terms of medical equipment in these exceptional circumstances.
In related news on Friday, the country's Education Minister announced schools would most likely remain shut beyond the national lockdown period so far imposed by the government, which was officially effective until April 3.
"For sure, the school closure will be extended over the April 3 date," Lucia Azzolina told state TV broadcast RAI 1.
"At the moment, our goal is to ensure students will return to school only after health authorities have guaranteed this is safest... our pupils' and our educational staff's health is the priority."
The minister explained that "information about final exams, both in primary and secondary schools, will be provided to students in the next weeks."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's cabinet was at work to outline further measures to help the country's industrial and social fabric sustain the impact of the health crisis. A first package worth 25 billion euros (27.7 billion U.S. dollars) was passed earlier this month.
Addressing the senate on Thursday, Conte said he was confident the government would be able "to offer companies, families, and workers additional allocations, for a total not lower than 50 billion euros (including the first package)."
Deaths surged in Italy and Spain on Friday, troubling new outbreak sites bubbled in the United States, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first leader of a major country to test positive for the coronavirus that has sickened more than a half-million people worldwide.
Italy recorded its single biggest rise in deaths, with 969 more victims, to bring its total number of fatalities to 9,134. The country now has 86,498 cases. surpassing China to record the grim distinction of the second-most infections in the world, behind the U.S.
Johnson's office said he was tested after showing mild symptoms for the coronavirus and is self-isolating and continuing to lead Britain's response to the pandemic.
"Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team, to lead the national fightback against coronavirus," Johnson said in a video message, adding that he had a temperature and persistent cough.
Several weeks ago, Johnson had pledged he would "go on shaking hands with everybody."
Johnson, 55, was the first leader of a major nation known to have contracted COVID-19; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in isolation since her doctor tested positive for the virus, but her first two tests have been negative.
Earlier this week Britain's Prince Charles said he had tested positive.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been at the forefront of the nation's response to the outbreak, also was confirmed to have the virus. Britain has 11,658 confirmed cases and 578 people have died.
Spain's Health Ministry reported another 7,800 infections overnight for a total of 64,059. Deaths climbed by 769 to 4,858 — the world's second-highest total after Italy's 8,214 fatalities.
Spain says 9,444 health workers have contracted the coronavirus. That's nearly 15% of the total number of cases.
"It's true that we have more deaths than what we saw yesterday, but it's also true that the percentage increase today is similar to that of he past three days and it appears there is a stabilization," said Fernando Simón, the head of Spain's health emergency coordination center.
In Washington, the House rushed a $2.2 trillion recovery package to President Donald Trump, approving the sweeping measure by voice vote. Lawmakers in both parties lined up behind the measure to send checks to millions of Americans, boost unemployment benefits, help businesses and toss a life preserver to an overwhelmed health care system.
The situation in countries with more fragile health care infrastructure worsened, with Russia, Indonesia and South Africa all passing the 1,000-infection mark. India launched a massive program to help feed hungry day laborers after a lockdown of the country's 1.3 billion people put them out of work.
South Africa also announced its first two deaths from the virus as it began a three-week lockdown.
The U.S. now has 85,996 confirmed cases, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Italy, the U.S.. and China account for nearly half the world's more than 550,000 infections and more than half of the roughly 25,000 reported virus deaths.
Analysts warned that all those infection figures could be low for reasons that varied in each nation.
"China numbers can't be trusted because the government lies," American political scientist Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group think-tank, said in a tweet. "U.S. numbers can't be trusted because the government can't produce enough tests."
Italian epidemiologists warn that the country's numbers are likely much higher than reported — perhaps by five times — although two weeks into a nationwide lockdown the daily increase seems to be slowing, at least in northern Italy.
"It's a horrible sensation, not being able to breathe," said Fausto Russo, a 38-year-old fitness trainer who is one of 10,000 Italians whose infection has been cured. "Imagine putting your head under water."
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Johns Hopkins reported more than 127,000 people have recovered, about half in China.
New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, reported 100 more deaths in one day, accounting for almost 30% of the 1,300 fatalities nationwide. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the number of deaths will increase soon as critically ill patients who have been on ventilators for days succumb.
"That is a situation where people just deteriorate over time," Cuomo said.
The White House's coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, said counties around Chicago and Detroit are seeing a rapid increase in cases.
On Thursday, Louisiana reported the number of coronavirus cases in the state leaped 28% overnight, and New Orleans is gearing up for a possible overflow at hospitals, with plans to treat as many as 3,000 patients at the city's convention center if necessary.
Louisiana has surpassed 2,300 people known to be infected, with 86 residents dead from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, according to the state health department. A 17-year-old from New Orleans was among the latest deaths, the first in the state of someone under 18, and Gov. John Bel Edwards said it shows "everyone is at risk."
Washington, D.C., confirmed 36 new cases, raising its total to 267. The district is under a state of emergency, its major attractions like the Smithsonian museums and National Zoo closed and White House and Capitol tours canceled. Police have blocked streets and bridges to prevent crowds from coming to see Washington's blooming cherry blossom trees.
Russian authorities ramped up testing this week after widespread criticism of insufficient screening.
The stay-home order for India's 1.3 billion people threw out of work the backbone of the nation's economy. The government announced a $22 billion stimulus to deliver monthly rations to 800 million people.
India's massive train system was also halted, and jobless workers are now trying to walk hundreds of miles to their home villages from India's major cities.
In China, where the virus was first believed to have started, the National Health Commission on Friday reported 55 new cases, 54 of them imported infections. Once again, there were no new cases reported in Wuhan, the provincial capital where the coronavirus first emerged in December. China is barring most foreigners from entering.
In a phone call Friday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping told Trump that China "understands the United States' current predicament over the COVID-19 outbreak and stands ready to provide support within its capacity," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Trump, who has repeatedly referred to the outbreak as a "Chinese virus," struck a different tone, tweeting after the call that "China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!"
Beijing has strongly protested U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's repeated references to the outbreak as the "Wuhan Flu," saying that promotes bias against China and Chinese Americans.
Shares skidded early Friday in Europe after a mixed day in Asia, where Tokyo's Nikkei 225 jumped while Australia's benchmark sank 5%. On Wall Street, major indexes were down about 3% in mid-day trading, giving up some of the gains the market had piled up over the previous three days.
The Prince of Wales has tested positive for coronavirus, Clarence House has announced, reports BBC.
Prince Charles, 71, is displaying mild symptoms "but otherwise remains in good health", a spokesman said, adding that the Duchess of Cornwall, 72, has been tested but does not have the virus.
Both Charles and Camilla are now self-isolating at Balmoral.
Buckingham Palace said the Queen last saw her son on 12 March, but also "remains in good health".
The Queen, the palace added, "is following all the appropriate advice with regard to her welfare".
A Clarence House statement read: "In accordance with government and medical advice, the prince and the duchess are now self-isolating at home in Scotland.
"The tests were carried out by the NHS in Aberdeenshire, where they met the criteria required for testing.
"It is not possible to ascertain from whom the prince caught the virus owing to the high number of engagements he carried out in his public role during recent weeks."
The prince's last public engagement was on 12 March, but the Press Association news agency reported he subsequently had a number of private meetings with Highgrove and Duchy individuals, all of whom have been made aware.