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Queen Mary Global Policy Institute

Socially Distanced Diplomacy - the Ambassador in the age of Covid-19

In January 2020, the first coronavirus cases were reported in the UK. The virus proved adept at person-to-person transmission and cases rapidly mounted worldwide, resulting in the formal declaration of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in early March. We are all grimly familiar with what has unfolded since that time, and with the resulting restrictions on personal freedoms and daily life.

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The panel of the Socially-Distanced Diplomacy event
The panel of the Socially-Distanced Diplomacy event

The nature of work has changed completely, with some working remotely, some sadly losing their jobs or businesses, and others continuing to attend their usual place of employment but under incredibly challenging, altered conditions. No sector of the economy has been left untouched, but the lived experience of certain jobs has changed more than others.  

This is particularly true of the life of a senior diplomat: how exactly does one enact foreign policy from the dining room table, handle sensitive bilateral negotiations while simultaneously juggling childcare commitments, or – as a newly appointed Ambassador - motivate an entire Embassy team without ever having the opportunity to get to know your staff face-to-face? We were curious to find out.

Hence the chosen theme of a recent Queen Mary Global Policy Institute event: Socially-distanced diplomacy – the Ambassador in the age of Covid-19. Bringing together a distinguished panel of three senior diplomats from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) the event offered a rare opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of this often misunderstood profession, and to understand something of the challenges of adapting diplomatic life to Covid-19 and enforced remote working.

Jon Benjamin, who chaired the discussion, is a former Director of the FCDO’s Diplomatic Academy (now the International Academy), High Commissioner to Ghana, Ambassador to Chile, Consul General in New York, and now Ambassador (designate) to Mexico. Candid, thoughtful contributions came also from Ambassador Joanna Roper CMG - Ambassador to the Netherlands; formerly FCDO Special Envoy for Gender Equality - and Simon Manley CMG - Permanent Representative to the UN and WTO; formerly responsible for steering the Foreign Office’s global Covid-19 response effort from London.

Discussing the immediate challenges and dilemmas they faced at the beginning of the pandemic, our panellists spoke of their and their teams’ role in supporting the repatriation of Brits abroad, including those stuck on cruise ships denied entry to port.

Another fundamental difficulty was simply to establish how many British citizens were overseas, where they were located, and which among them required assistance in returning to the UK (against a backdrop of increasingly scarce commercial flights). Similarly, the challenge of sourcing large quantities of PPE and other medical supplies, at a time of unprecedented global demand for these essential resources.

Ambassadors Joanna Roper and Jon Benjamin spoke to the particular challenges of taking up a new Ambassadorial position while constrained by the limitations of remote working: while Joanna now lives in the Hague, she conducts most - if not all - of her work online.

While taking up a new overseas assignment during lockdown can be a logistical nightmare (not least where diplomatic pets are concerned), it seems the real test is in cultivating a team spirit via videoconferencing, and supporting staff wellbeing and mental health (read more of Joanna’s reflections on this theme at the Civil Service Blog).

FCDO staff were ultimately successful in repatriating around 38,000 Brits during this period, working closely with airlines and overseas governments, and extending travel grants where required. The panel were unequivocal in their praise for the outstanding calibre of FCDO teams worldwide, and spoke persuasively of the many rewards of a life in the diplomatic services.

Interested Queen Mary students are encouraged to explore opportunities to join the Foreign, Commonwealth and Diplomatic Service via the Diplomatic Fast Stream website.

Watch the event

To hear directly from our distinguished panel about the challenges of adapting diplomacy in the face of a global pandemic, watch the recording of the event below: 


This Queen Mary Global Policy Institute event and blog post were developed with support from our Policy Associate Angela Mutsotso.

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Pete Biggs
International Communications Manager