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New Ambassador To United States Addresses Impact Of COVID-19 In U.K.


Among those caught up in President Trump's new coronavirus-related restrictions on travelers from Europe is Britain's new ambassador to Washington. Dame Karen Pierce flew from London to D.C. earlier this month to take up her new post. Because of the travel restrictions, she is spending her first 14 days here in mandatory self-quarantine in the British ambassador's residence, from where she joins us now.

Ambassador, welcome back to the U.S. Welcome to Washington. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KAREN PIERCE: Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here.

KELLY: Would you mind starting by just describing how things unfolded when you landed? I guess you were tested for the virus when you arrived at the airport.

PIERCE: Well, I went through CDC screening, along with all the other passengers. And then I got a car to bring me to the British Embassy, which is on Massachusetts Avenue. The ambassador's residence is right next door, so that's where I live. And I've been working out of the library in that residence since 19 March. So my quarantine period ends soon.

KELLY: Ends soon - yeah, I was going to ask. So it sounds like you're nearly through the two weeks. Is that right?

PIERCE: That's right. I'll be able to come out tomorrow evening.

KELLY: Let me ask you about global leadership. The U.S. has historically led global responses to global crises. The United Kingdom has, of course, played that role, too. Do you see either of our countries playing that role today in this coronavirus crisis?

PIERCE: I think it's fair to say that the corona crisis hasn't had the same sort of rapid, coordinated international response that, say, we saw in the 2008 financial crisis. But that said, the American government for G7 and the Saudi Arabian government for G20 have managed to bring leaders and health ministers, finance ministers, foreign ministers together to work on a coordinated set of actions, all to keep the global economy going, to step up work on vaccines, to help the U.N. and particularly the World Health Organization get detailed help where it needs to go and then also to work on repatriation.

KELLY: I do want to ask about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has a confirmed case of the coronavirus, as does health minister Matt Hancock, as does the heir to the throne, Prince Charles. Should Britain, with the benefit of hindsight, have acted more quickly and more forcefully to try to contain the virus?

PIERCE: I think what the government is trying to do at all points is act in accordance with the scientific advice. We have a special group of scientists known as SAGE whose job it is to get together in crises of this type and advise the government. And the government then reaches its view based on their recommendations.

When we saw that the virus was increasing exponentially - and there was a very important study done by Imperial College in London about this - then the scientific advice changed, and the government adopted a much stricter approach to social distancing and people going out. And schools were closed. And this is the situation that we have at the moment.

KELLY: Although to your point of acting in accordance with scientific guidance, I'm thinking of a day earlier this month, March 3. The WHO, the World Health Organization, had already issued warnings about people - don't shake hands. And Boris Johnson, the prime minister, was quoted on the record saying, I'm shaking hands continuously. I was at a hospital the other night where there were a few coronavirus patients. I shook hands with everybody.

PIERCE: Well, the WHO issues the guidance that it issues, and then countries look at that and adapt it for their national circumstances. I didn't actually see the pictures of the prime minister shaking hands, but I think what he wanted to do was to let those patients know that we were on their side, that he was on their side, that we were thinking of them, that we didn't want them stigmatized if they'd been seen to have the virus. And I think the prime minister was trying to create a spirit of, we will get through this.

KELLY: Right - presumably is home, convalescing and not shaking hands at the moment.

PIERCE: Well, he's certainly - in No. 10 Downing Street, which is the prime minister's official residence, there is an apartment at the top. It also runs - there are two houses together. One is where our chancellor, our equivalent of the Treasury secretary, has his official residence. And there's an apartment. The prime minister is there. That's his home. But the prime minister is still taking part in meetings and helping deal with the crisis.

And then our foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, my boss - he is our first secretary of state. So he steps into those occasions where the prime minister isn't able to do so. So we are still up and running.

KELLY: That is Dame Karen Pierce, as of this month Britain's ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador, thank you so much.

PIERCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.