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British PM Boris Johnson welcomes "incredibly encouraging" early moves from Biden

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he's "had some good conversations" with President Biden "about the way he sees things."

Video Transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: This morning, a special interview with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He, like President Biden, is struggling with the pandemic. The UK death rate by percentage of population has now surpassed the US rate and is one of the highest in the world.

Good morning to you, Mr. Prime Minister.

BORIS JOHNSON: Good morning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for joining us. I wanted to ask you a little bit of your reflection on what just happened overnight. You strongly condemned the attack on the US Capitol and said it was completely wrong for then President Trump to have consistently cast doubt on the outcome of a free election. In terms of America's global standing, what signal did his acquittal make?

BORIS JOHNSON: I think the clear message that we get from the proceedings in America is that after all the toings and froings and all the kerfuffle, American democracy is strong, and the American Constitution is strong and-- and robust. And we're delighted now-- I'm very delighted to have a good relationship with the White House, which is an important part of any UK prime minister's mission. And I've had some good conversations already with-- with President Biden, fantastic conversations about the way he sees things.

And you know, Margaret, there's been some important developments in the way the UK, US thinking has been coming together in the last few weeks, particularly on issues like climate change, on NATO, on Iran, but above all, on the ways that the US and the UK are going to work together to deal with the environmental challenge that faces our planet. And there, I think some of the stuff we're now hearing from the new American administration and from the new White House is incredibly encouraging. And we want to work with the president on that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And I understand you will be hosting President Biden for his first foreign ministers-- foreign meeting on the 19th, although it'll be virtual because of COVID. The Trump administration has already pledged about $4 billion in December to the global vaccine alliance in this fight against COVID. And I understand that's the focus of your upcoming meeting with President Biden. What are you asking him to do?

BORIS JOHNSON: The United States and the UK both have an incredibly proud record of supporting the COVAX Global Vaccine Alliance. So together, we contribute huge sums to ensuring that countries around the world that are less fortunate than ours have access to-- to vaccines. And we'll be working to make sure that that happens.

What I also want to see is the US and the UK working together to learn the lessons from the pandemic and to build back better together. I'm thrilled that President Biden has also got a slogan "Build Back Better." I think I claimed that we used it first, though to be truthful, I think we-- we nicked it from someone else before I started using it.

But it's the right slogan, Margaret. We've got to learn from this pandemic. We've got to learn about how to-- to share information, how to share drugs properly, how to make sure we don't hoard things like personal protective equipment, as you saw earlier on in the pandemic. We've got to make sure that we-- we're distributing vaccines.

In the UK, we now have one of the fastest vaccine rollouts anywhere in the world, as-- as your viewers may perhaps know that we've-- I think we've done almost 15 million vaccinations in our country and what is, I think, more than one in four adults has now had a vaccination. That's-- that's tremendously fast progress. But we want to make sure that we work with countries like-- like the United States so that everybody gets vaccination. There's no point in-- in great countries like the United States, the UK vaccinating our own populations if we don't ensure that everybody gets a vaccination.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you're asking--

BORIS JOHNSON: This is a pandemic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --the US for more money towards that?

BORIS JOHNSON: The US has already been extremely generous, as you said yourself. And the UK is the second biggest contributor to COVAX and to the global anti-virus-- the-- the Vaccination Alliance that-- the Gavi organization. And we'll continue to do that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about what the World Health Organization report actually constituted, because the Biden administration--

BORIS JOHNSON: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --was clear, they have deep concerns about the investigation, about Chinese interference. And they are demanding that China hand over data about the early outbreak. Are you joining them in that call? Is China obscuring what happened?

BORIS JOHNSON: One of the things we'll be calling for in the-- the G7, which President Biden is going to be joining, I'm glad to say, is global coordination in getting to the bottom of what happens with these diseases. So when you have a zoonotic plague like coronavirus, we need to know exactly how it happened, indeed if it's zoonotic, if it really originated from human contact with the animal kingdom. That's what is asserted.

But we need to know exactly what happened. Was it in a wet market? Did it come from the bats? Were the bats associated with the pangolins?

All these questions are now matters of speculation. We need to see the data. We need to see all the evidence. So I-- I thoroughly support what President Biden has said about that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: British government scientists revealed on Friday that that particular strain, B117, which was first detected in your country, is likely increased to a greater rate of hospitalization and death, perhaps as much as 40% to 60% more. You're under a lot of political pressure to open your schools. Are you certain you can do that next month?

BORIS JOHNSON: We're proceeding in a cautious way. And what you've got at the moment in the UK is the virus coming down. You're perfectly correct in what you say about the-- the B117 variant, though bear in mind that the reason we've been able to isolate this and other variants is that the UK conducts far more genomic analysis than any other country.

Of all the genomic testing that's going on in the world, we do like 47% here in the UK. So we're pretty good at spotting these mutations of these viruses and-- and tracking their movement through our populations. It's absolutely true that this one spreads faster. But what you're now seeing is, thanks to the efforts of the British people, the lockdown plus possibly the-- the effects of the vaccine, we're going to start seeing the-- the rates coming down more sharply. And they're falling at the moment.

We want to be in a position where-- where we can begin to open up. So what I've said, Margaret, is that on March the 8th, we want schools to go back, if we possibly can. I'm not saying that we're announcing that today, because we're going to be saying a lot more on the 22nd of this month. We'll be making clear our roadmap. And I think what people want to see, and this may be the same in the US as well, is clarity about the way forward and taking steps to unlock that you don't then have to reverse.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Exactly, because--

BORIS JOHNSON: Because that, I think, is what is so--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and that's what I want to--

BORIS JOHNSON: --difficult for businesses and people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That's what I want to press you on, though, Mr. Prime Minister. Because when you announced you were shutting schools in January and you would really prioritize for a long time keeping open schools, when you said they've got to shut down in January, you said they were because "they might be vectors of transmission for the community." If you've got this strain circulating and you believe schools are vectors of transmission, how can you reopen them?

BORIS JOHNSON: The answer to that is that you need to see what the effect of the vaccination program is in removing likely victims, victims in the sense of people who suffer either death or serious disease, what the success of the vaccination program has in removing those people from the path of the disease and also what's happening with the-- the rate of infection. It's now coming down, Margaret, very considerably in our country. What we don't know is quite how fast it's going to be coming down in the next couple of weeks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the vaccines that you are using is from UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. And there are questions now about how effective it can be against some of the mutant strains, particularly the one first detected in South Africa. Are you concerned you're putting a flawed vaccine into the arms of your constituents? And what's your backup plan?

BORIS JOHNSON: We have great confidence in all the vaccinations that we're using. And we have no reason to think that they are ineffective against any variation of the-- any-- any variant, any new variant of the virus in protecting people, Margaret, against serious illness and death. And that's-- that's a very important consideration for us. One of the features of Oxford AstraZeneca that has been recently confirmed by the scientists is that it-- it reduces transmission between people as well. There's a 67% reduction in transmission as a result of the use of these vaccinations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK, Mr. Prime Minister. We're going to take a quick break. "Face the Nation" will be back in one minute. Stay with us.

We're back with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Back in April, you were hospitalized with COVID. You were quite ill. You were in the ICU. Did you ever think you wouldn't make it?

BORIS JOHNSON: I think in common with many people in my country, I'm very grateful to the fantastic work of the NHS, and they did an outstanding job, and they continue to do an outstanding job. I think one of the features of this illness is that you don't-- as you undergo it, it's possible you don't realize quite what a state you're in. I think that is one of the features of it, because your-- your oxygen levels go down in a way that perhaps the patient doesn't necessarily detect themselves.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And that's why it's so serious. I want to ask you about US-UK relations. You have not yet met President Biden, though you're about to have this virtual meeting. You did have a phone call. Back in 2019, he referred to you, as I'm sure you know, as "the physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump." Are you concerned you're going to start off on the wrong foot?

BORIS JOHNSON: I've had, I think, already two long and very good conversations with the president. And we had a really good exchange, particularly about climate change and what he wants to do. We want to build back better together, particularly in the run up to the COP summit in November in Glasgow this year, which we hope will be a physical incarnation of the leaders of the world to agree what we hope will be a fantastic thing, which is everybody to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but also making pledges on the way, what they're going to do to get there by 2030.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On the issue of Ireland, you may have some difference here. President Biden doesn't want you to put that peace agreement in Northern Ireland at risk at all, has made clear that border needs to stay open and you need to adhere to that EU-UK agreement from December. Can you commit and reassure the US Congress and the US president that you will do so in all circumstances stick to that agreement?

BORIS JOHNSON: You bet. This is fundamental for us. The-- the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Peace Agreement, the Good Friday process, the Belfast Agreement, these-- these agreements are absolutely crucial--

MARGARET BRENNAN: And the Northern Ireland Protocol?

BORIS JOHNSON: --for our continued stability-- our continued stability and-- and success as a-- as a UK-- and our success-- I have a great relationship with-- with Dublin, with Michael Martin, the Irish taoiseach, and we're going to work together to do some great things. And Margaret, be in no doubt, we don't want to do anything to jeopardize the achievements of the Northern Irish peace process. It's absolutely vital.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And the Northern Ireland Protocol specifically, you will adhere to that open border?

BORIS JOHNSON: We want to make sure that there's free movement north south, free movement east-- east west, and-- and that we guarantee the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, of course.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, Mr. Prime Minister, I'm told we are at time. Thank you very much for your time today.

BORIS JOHNSON: No. Margaret, thank you so much. Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you.