British Ambassador: Creativity & Resilience Will Lead Us into a Very Promising Future

Exclusive Interview

GT LIVE INTERVIEWS, in its “AMBASSADORS GO LIVE” series, meets diplomats to discuss, among other things, their countries’ approach to combating the coronavirus, how they view Georgia’s efforts in this regard, and their perspective on the future, post-COVID.

This week we spoke to British Ambassador to Georgia, Justin McKenzie Smith, who, prior to his appointment in Georgia four years ago, was Deputy Head of Mission and Director for Trade and Investment at the British Embassy in Mexico City until 2015, and Deputy Director responsible for the UK’s relations with Russia, the South Caucasus and Central Asia in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until 2011.

The latest COVID-19 statistics from the UK, which is 242,495 km² and has a population of 66.65 million, at time of writing were as follows: The UK appears 4th on the Worldometer coronavirus list, behind the USA, Spain, and Russia, with 196,175 active corona cases, of which 1,559 are critical. 33,186 British citizens have died and total cases currently stand at 229,705.

What steps have you and the Embassy taken to protect staff and those around you?

We’ve been carefully following the recommendations of the Georgian government and health officials, combined with the advice coming from the UK, to ensure the safety of our staff members and their families. Also to make sure that we maintain the Embassy’s essential business here in Georgia, which is to support British nationals and strengthen our special partnership with Georgia.

Our many team members have been working from home; and we have adapted to that surprisingly quickly. I would like to pay tribute to many of my colleagues who haven’t been able to work from home due to the nature of their jobs, and who have been keeping the British Embassy operational over these many weeks. I know that there are workers like them across all Georgia, who have been keeping the country going.

Tell us what steps your country’s government and healthcare system have taken to fight COVID-19, and how effective you think that fight has been.

It’s not questionable anymore that the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest public health emergency in a generation. In the UK, our immediate effort has been to protect our national health service, and in doing so, to save lives.

I want to pay tribute, if I may, to the extraordinary effort of our frontline national health service in the UK, and the health workers across Georgia, as well as all kinds of different sectors who have been keeping the essential functions of our society going.

In response to this unprecedented epidemic, the UK government introduced preventative measures very similar to those in Georgia. The whole situation has been tough, but the combined efforts of the healthcare workers and other communities in our society proved effective, so that we’re now past the peak of this outbreak.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday introduced the government’s recovery strategy which will lead us into the next stage of COVID-19 response, and shall be informed by science, as in all stages of this fight.

I think we should not concentrate solely on separate national responses to this crisis; international cooperation is the best cure for COVID-19. This outlook has been essential in the UK’s response to the pandemic. There are many examples of how we’ve been encouraging the closest possible international coordination. We put forward the global coronavirus initiative on May 4, which raised an astonishing $7 billion for vaccines and therapy.

I’m also delighted that we’ve been able to increase the UK aid to many of the key international organizations such as the WHO, the UN agencies and others who are on the frontline of this fight. I’m doubly delighted that some of these organizations have been using this aid here in Georgia to protect vulnerable communities from the virus. With our help, UNICEF has been providing special help to those in need.

We've been able to adjust and refocus some of the existing programs that we’ve had in Georgia, including the public administration reform, and to support those government agencies who are on the frontline of delivering Georgia’s COVID-19 response.

This is not just a health crisis. It is equally an economic and a social crisis for us all. I have been delighted to see the strength of the response of the international financial institutions here in Georgia, of which the UK is a very active contributor and a board member. We’re looking at ways to ensure that the Georgian economy bounces back as quickly as possible.

If you could go back in time, what would you recommend be done differently?

I’m sure that profound lessons are going to be learned in every society. I think that is inevitable and potentially very positive. For now, the focus is still on addressing the immediate challenges that our countries are facing. But the phase of learning the lessons will surely come, and it will be a very important phase.

Many publications, both in the US and Europe, have over the past month praised Georgia’s handling of the pandemic. From what you have read or heard, what is your take on that?

I think Georgia’s response has been remarkable. The government’s work has been impressive with its rigor and carefulness. The role played by Georgia’s healthcare sector is also significant. We’ve seen real leadership from the members of the healthcare sector, which I think has been vital for Georgia and has set an example for the international community. What stands out for me the most is the involvement of the whole of society. No success could have been possible without the extraordinary response from Georgia’s society, that boldly stood up against the virus. The result is the relatively low figures of infection that we’re seeing, and the possibility for the Georgian government to accelerate its 6-stage exit plan.

What is your country doing to support its citizens, especially those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic?

We protect our citizens through a very effective and capable healthcare system; but we also need to back that up with economic, fiscal, social and employment measures. That has been a very key part of the British government’s response to this crisis. The UK government is running the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has been extended till the end of October. What the government is doing through that scheme is to cover up to around 80% of the salary of certain workers in the UK, and as a consequence, around 7.5 million workers’ jobs have been protected. This is absolutely vital for individual livelihoods and families, and also for the long-term well-being of our economy.

On the fiscal level, the British government has been extending various loans and guarantees to businesses, in order to protect cash flow throughout this crisis; something in the region of 14 billion pounds has been offered in that way. Protecting our essential businesses as we move through this crisis has been an essential part of our response.

One other area of protection that I want to mention is the support that we’ve been providing to British nationals overseas. The network of British embassies and missions across the world have been working day and night to support British nationals who have been trying to return home; we estimate that around 1.3 million British nationals have returned to the UK during this period, whether by commercial routes or by specially charted flights. As for those who were not able to return home, we’ve been trying to support them to stay safe during this crisis.

How do you see the UK in 6 months’/one year’s time? How can the world’s economy recover, how long do you think it will take, and what should be done to make it happen faster?

I think one lesson that we have all learned is to be cautious about predictions. If we had asked the same question three months ago, none of us could have imagined what the last three months have been like. I would be cautious about being too definitive about the trajectory of the next three months; whether in Georgia, the UK, or anywhere else. There are two things that I want to say though. Firstly, we’re not at all out of this crisis. We need to stay alert, to make sure that we’re keeping the virus under control, and that we’re saving lives. The second thing is that as we do start to re-emerge from this extraordinary crisis, both in Georgia and in UK, we need to use the reserves of creativity and make sure that we build back better. I think there are huge lessons that we’ve learned as a result of this crisis, and I also think there will be opportunities that come out of it. I’m confident that over the next 6 months and beyond, it’s this kind of creativity and resilience that exists in both countries that will lead us into a very promising future.

Transcribed by Elene Dzebisashvili

By Katie Ruth Davies

14 May 2020 18:12
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