Coronavirus, Britain, William Barr: Your Friday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering China’s shifting approach to the coronavirus outbreak, the reshaping of Boris Johnson’s cabinet and a key ally’s reproach of President Trump.


Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the large-scale quarantines in Wuhan have created confusion and frustration, and put some patients at even greater risk.

Confirmed coronavirus patients showing mild symptoms are being massed together, while those suspected of being infected are being isolated in converted hotels and schools.

The latest: China is using its telecommunications firms, all state-run, to track users who may have visited Hubei. Japan confirmed its first death from the virus, which is the third outside mainland China.

Changing numbers: China’s shift to using CT scans to look for pneumonia rather than relying only on a positive test for the virus appears to have caused a sudden rise in the number of reported deaths and infections. Experts say the scans could catch many more cases. For now, the World Health Organization is continuing to rely only on confirmed test numbers.

The British prime minister faces a new dynamic among his top advisers this morning, after what was supposed to be a routine reshuffle turned into a seismic shift on Thursday.

Rishi Sunak, 39 and a relative newcomer to Parliament, will be the chancellor of the Exchequer, traditionally the second most powerful role in the government. He’s replacing his former boss, Sajid Javid, who abruptly resigned rather than cede some of his power over economic policy to Mr. Johnson.

Top politicians from a range of ministries had already been told to step aside by Mr. Johnson’s officials, as the prime minister sought to provide a sense that his government was leaving behind three years of Brexit paralysis.

Motive: Mr. Johnson, encouraged by his influential aide Dominic Cummings and his recent electoral victory, wants to control economic policy and direct resources to the north and middle of England, where voters traditionally loyal to Labour switched sides.

Mr. Johnson’s office insisted that Mr. Javid fire his advisers, who would be replaced by a unit that would ultimately report to the prime minister. “I don’t believe any self-respecting minister would accept such conditions,” Mr. Javid said.

Other scrutiny for Johnson: The opposition Labour Party is demanding to know who paid for a luxury Caribbean vacation the prime minister and his partner took a few weeks ago. He declared its worth at £15,000.

In a television interview on Thursday, the top U.S. law enforcement official, Attorney General William Barr, delivered a rebuke to President Trump.

He defended the role of the Justice Department in the handling of the legal case against Mr. Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, which Mr. Trump has repeatedly attacked. Mr. Barr’s intervention in the case won him Mr. Trump’s praise — but shook federal prosecutors across the country.

“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” Mr. Barr said, adding, “whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president.”

“I’m going to do what I think is right,” he said. “And, you know, I think I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”

See for yourself: We transcribed the key moments of Mr. Barr’s comments.

Another presidential rebuke: The Senate voted to require congressional approval for further attacks against Iran. Coming nearly six weeks after the U.S. military killed a top Iranian general, the vote was bipartisan but mostly symbolic, since the votes fell short of the number needed to override Mr. Trump’s promised veto.

Cook: Take time this weekend for stuffed shells.

Read: “Open Book,” a memoir by the entertainer Jessica Simpson, is a No. 1 debut this week on our hardcover nonfiction and combined print and e-book nonfiction best-seller lists.

Smarter Living: There are good ways and bad ways for colleagues with different circadian rhythms to approach working together. Here are some tips.

Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science reporter for The New York Times, has covered infectious diseases since 2002. He’s part of a team of science reporters working to make sense of the spread of the latest coronavirus and the medical response. The following is a condensed version of a conversation about his observations and concerns.

What do we know, and what don’t we know, about the coronavirus?

In the beginning of every epidemic, there is the fog of war.

I’d say we’re still in that fog. We know this virus is much more transmissible than SARS or MERS. We don’t know if it’s quite as transmissible as the flu. We know it can kill people. We know it’s not nearly as lethal as MERS or SARS.

One of the things we don’t know is what the Chinese aren’t saying. We know that they’re reluctant to let in outside experts to root around and wouldn’t share samples of the earliest cases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When you ask scientists, “What’s your fear for the Big One, the pandemic that’s going to kill us all?” — not that there is a pandemic that’s going to kill us all — but if you ask them that, they say, “Flu.” They worry about some new flu, bird flu or swine flu, that’s highly lethal but becomes very transmissible between humans. I know only one or two scientists who have said, “You know, I also worry about coronaviruses being the Big One.”

I don’t want to raise alarm that this is the Big One. But this is a new, scary and confusing one, and we don’t yet know how far it’s going to spread and how many people it’s going to kill.

What do you think about the public’s reaction to your reporting?

I’m always trying to figure out: Am I being alarmist, or am I not being alarmist enough? I was too alarmist about H5N1 back in 2005, the bird flu. I was not alarmist enough about West Africa and Ebola in its early days. All previous Ebola outbreaks had killed a few hundred people. That one killed 11,000.

A big part of my beat is debunking the panicky stories. It actually consumes almost as much of my time as reporting does.

I try to spread truth instead of panic, even if it takes me a little longer to get it right.

That’s it for this briefing. Hope you have a great (and healthy) weekend.

— Andrea

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Kathleen Massara for the break from the news. Alex Traub wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at

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