Feb 28, 2020 08:16 PM

Opinion: U.K. and China Can Help Lead a Global Response to Covid-19

British Ambassador to China Barbara Woodward in Beijing. Photo: Cai Yingli/Caixin
British Ambassador to China Barbara Woodward in Beijing. Photo: Cai Yingli/Caixin

I’m sure that, like me, none of you were anticipating the start of the Year of the Rat to be quite so challenging. But it has been a privilege for me to remain in Beijing, and to witness first-hand the resilience and fortitude of the Chinese people.

The Covid-19 outbreak is a huge challenge. It has caused heartbreak, worry and huge disruption across China and in particular to the people of Central China’s Hubei province. My thoughts are with all those affected, especially because Wuhan is my Chinese hometown, where I worked as an English teacher from 1986-1987.

China’s doctors and nurses have shown incredible bravery in leading the fight against the disease on the frontline in Hubei. Dr. Li Wenliang’s efforts — calling out the dangers early on, and making the ultimate sacrifice in response — are an example to us all. And Chinese scientists identified and published the virus’ genotype in record time.

The U.K. stands alongside China in the fight against Covid-19. Pathogens have no nationality; disease knows no borders; and Covid-19 is a global threat to public health.

Prime Minster Boris Johnson has been in contact with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to offer his support. In his call with President Xi last week, the Prime Minister said it was essential that countries work together in these situations, finding common solutions to common challenges.

No single country can overcome, or fully defend against, the threat that Covid-19 presents. Whether it is looking out for our nationals around the world or finding a vaccine for the virus, the international community must be globally minded and work together.

Global challenges need a global response

The 21st century is a global century and it is only by being globally minded that we have been able to reap the benefits of increased connectivity.

Globalization has helped increase the pace of economic development, advances in science and raised living standards. Since the 1940s there has been a reduction in the proportion of people living in poverty around the world from over 50% in the 1940s to less than 10% today. China’s own journey has been a crucial part of this.

Globalization has also broken down cultural and language barriers between countries with 1.4 billion international trips being made every year and more students choosing study abroad than ever before.

However, this increased connectivity has also seen the globalization of threats, whether that is health pandemics such as Covid-19, terrorism or climate change.

It would be naive for one country in an interconnected world to believe that they can protect themselves from these threats on their own.

Fortunately globalization has given us the increased infrastructure and connectivity to work together. A global response, built on transparency, sharing data, pooling expertise and working together is the answer to the challenge.

And fortunately the U.K.-China relationship, bilaterally and in multilateral fora, has a strong basis to support this response.

The golden era provides a strong basis for our cooperation

The strengthening of the U.K.-China partnership during our “Golden Era” has had a positive impact both on our countries and the rest of the world.

I have always been clear that our relations are strong and deep, and I have worked to make them more so. They cover all aspects of government-to-government, people-to-people and business-to-business cooperation.


We now have a new government in the U.K., leading an outward looking Britain, acting independently outside the EU. That will mean even more scope to strengthen U.K. relations with China.

In their phone call, President Xi and Prime Minister Johnson focussed on the immediate response to Covid-19. But they also covered a strategic overview of the relationship, setting a positive agenda which we can build on.

They also agreed to work closely together in tackling other global challenges, particularly climate change. Later this year China will host the Convention on Biological Diversity in Yunnan and the U.K. will host COP 26 in Glasgow. We will want to work together to make both a success.

Under this top level framework, our health ministers, foreign ministers and others continue to stay in touch through this challenging period.


Our people to people exchanges are particularly strong and resilient. We have longstanding cooperation on science and health issues.

It was a small, but for us essential, gesture of support to deliver two large shipments of essential medical supplies. They included thousands of sterile gowns, face masks, surgical gloves and other vital equipment, which we were able to get to those who needed them most in Wuhan.

We have announced a new 50 million pound investment into vaccine and virus research, a considerable part of which will go directly to efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

We have been keen to share our longstanding expertise in disease control and our doctors have been at the center of the response to every major outbreak around the world and Covid-19 is no different.

In 1854, the English doctor John Snow used disease mapping techniques for the first time to trace the source of an outbreak of cholera in London’s Soho. Fast forward to today and while the basics still hold, the U.K. now has world leading facilities and research on infectious diseases. That is expertise we are working to share, bilaterally and particularly through the WHO.

As well as practical support our strong people to people links have seen the sharing of emotional support from schools and universities around the U.K. for the people of Hubei including from the children of Milburn Primary School, in Northern Ireland, who posted a video of themselves singing in Chinese “Let the world be full of love” that went viral.


The impact of Covid-19 on economic growth in China and around the world has yet to be seen, but whatever the outcome, the depth of the U.K.-China trade links will help to increase our mutual prosperity and create new growth in the future.

Leaving the European Union has given us an opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world, strengthen and deepen our key trading relationships, including with China, and be a positive and powerful force for free trade.

The U.K. continues to be open to Chinese investment and our companies look forward to increasing their business in China.

To underscore this, during the period of Covid-19, we have seen the approval for Huawei’s limited participation in the UK’s 5G network. And on nuclear cooperation, last week there was confirmation that the Hualong 1000 reactor had passed the next stage of regulatory approval for future deployment in the U.K.


As UNSC P5 members, the U.K. and China have leading roles and responsibilities in international architecture. Sometimes that means frank exchanges when we disagree. But we have significant shared interests and a long history of working together.

The WHO has been the center for our multilateral cooperation on Covid-19. There we have been pushing for ever more coordination and cooperation, reflecting the global nature of the challenge. All countries impacted by the virus need to provide full, transparent and timely data, meeting WHO requests. The U.K. will play its full part.

To stop the disease spreading around the world, including to more vulnerable countries, we need the best possible scientific understanding to create the best possible advice. It will also be important to help developing countries improve hygiene factors, quickly identify cases and care for patients.

Since 2011 the U.K. and China have been building a global development partnership, focussing on support to other developing countries, and helping China develop its first ever Global Health Strategy. 

We are looking to take this relationship further and are in discussion with the Chinese government on the design of a new global health partnership. This will jointly support low- and middle-income countries mitigate infectious disease threats by working closely with multilateral organizations such as the WHO and the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC). This will include strengthening early warning systems, diagnostic and treatment facilities and national response capabilities.

Global Britain will remain open and continue to support the Chinese people

I am proud that we have worked to keep our relationship open and on track in this challenging period — open with top level exchanges, open with clear signals on trade and investment, and open on people-to-people links.

On people-to-people links, the U.K. has not put a travel ban on people traveling from China. Instead we have issued recommendations on when travelers should self-quarantine so Chinese people will still be able to continue coming to the U.K. to work, study or for holiday.

Containment restrictions and directives to limit the spread of the virus have meant that the British Council has had to suspend exams operations across the Chinese mainland until the end of the March. But a number of U.K. universities have amended application deadlines for Chinese students, and as soon as allowed to by the authorities, we plan to scale up the capacity of exams delivery and to reopen our network of visa application centers across China.  

Covid-19 presents us with a huge challenge but also with an opportunity to forge closer ties to protect the world from future global threats.

The U.K.-China relationship is longstanding and resilient. We have stepped up in solidarity with the Chinese people and we will work together in the global fight against Covid-19. We can, and will, emerge stronger.

Barbara Woodward is the British Ambassador to China in Beijing.

If you want to submit an opinion piece to Caixin Global, please contact editor Lu Zhenhua (

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code