UK government ministers and officials have privately reacted with “a general level of incredulity” at Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
A UK official — one of several members of the government who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity about the Trump administration’s response to the virus — said the president’s public statements have caused “more than the usual eyerolling” in London.
In particular, Trump’s false claims about the outbreak of the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, his tweets, and the failure of the US authorities to adequately test for the virus early on have caused “genuine disbelief” in Whitehall, the official said.
Referring to the UK government’s creation this week of a "fake news unit" to prevent the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus, they added: "Our COVID-19 counter-disinformation unit would need twice the manpower if we included him in our monitoring."
In response to questions about the US response, the World Health Organisation told BuzzFeed News that all countries must "take seriously" the threat of the virus and "work hard" to ensure testing of potential new cases.
The criticism came as Trump fired off a series of tweets on Monday morning attempting to downplay the threat and using it to attack his Democrat opponents.
Trump was under fire in the US on Monday after his public statements on the coronavirus contradicted medical experts. Contrary to Trump’s claims that fears about the virus are “fake news”, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that the outlook was “not encouraging” and that it was “possible” entire cities could be quarantined.
Last week, Trump falsely claimed that “anyone who wants a test can get a test”, despite there being a shortage of test kits across the US, and said Americans with the virus stranded on a cruise ship should remain there “because I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault”.
A UK government spokesperson declined to criticise other countries’ approach to COVID-19 on the record, saying: "Individual countries will approach this in different ways."
But speaking to BuzzFeed News, members of the UK government were highly critical of Trump’s actions over the last few days.
A Whitehall source said that the US focus on border control with China — something Trump has praised himself for — rather than on providing testing from an early stage was an example of a “populist measure” that was not based on scientific and medical advice.
The lack of testing in the US is likely to mean the true number of American coronavirus cases is much higher than recorded and could have been spreading for some time, experts have said.
“There is a general level of incredulity over his comments but especially over the lack of testing,” a UK official said. “People [in the UK government] are used to the steady stream of tweets, but the last few days have caused more than the usual eyerolling. There is genuine disbelief.”
The Whitehall source insisted that by contrast the UK was taking an evidence-based approach based on expert advice from chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who said on Monday that airport screening and restricting sporting events and large public gatherings would not have much effect on the spread of the virus.
Asked about Trump’s handling of the crisis, a WHO spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that it was not their “role to single out countries”. But, they added pointedly: “COVID-19 is a new virus that the world must take seriously. All governments must work hard to identify cases and trace contacts, share information, and contain the outbreak.
“WHO is grateful to those governments that provide current disaggregated data. This enables WHO to provide the type of useful analysis that has made it possible for China and others to reverse the course of COVID-19 in their country.”