‘Our work this year has been the culmination of four years of building a global department’: Department for International Trade perm sec Antonia Romeo on 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Antonia Romeo photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of the department achieving in 2020? 

What a year it’s been for DIT! We have now (at time of writing…) agreed trade deals with 58 countries worth £198bn of bilateral trade – no other country has ever negotiated so many trade deals simultaneously. We also took up our independent seat at the WTO, built a trade operating system for the UK, reduced hundreds of trade barriers, launched a set of sector-specific Post-Covid Export Support plans to support businesses during the pandemic, and launched a new Office for Investment to attract high value investment to the UK. Our work this year has been the culmination of four years of building a global department to lead across the whole of the UK’s trade work. I’m most proud of the team and capability we’ve built, and to see the department delivering at such pace on the mandate we were given in 2016 when we were created.  

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020? 

I’ve really missed my everyday interactions with the team, especially outside meetings. I love the chance encounters in the lift hearing about what colleagues are working on, & getting direct feedback on how things are going in the department. Keeping people engaged and in touch during the remote working period has been a major focus.  It’s also been challenging running an international department without being able to travel to see our overseas teams.  But despite the challenges of the past year, our teams been able to do some incredible things whilecollaborating across borders. For example, our overseas network, working with UK-based DIT teams and other departments, led a global project to identify suppliers to source vital orders of PPE kit and other critical medical supplies, and transmit them to the UK.  

What are the main challenges facing the department in the coming year? 

We have a big year ahead of us. The end of the EU Transition Period is the major moment for the department as we take responsibility for operating the trading system which the EU has been running for the UK for the last 45 years – trade remedies, trade disputes, supporting our own seat at the WTO, and running our own tariffs policy. These functions will ensure that UK trade remains free and fair, and that the UK is a strong advocate for a rules-based international trading system. We’ll also be continuing to negotiate new trade deals and helping British businesses benefit from them, and working across government to take advantage of several influential global platforms over the coming year – including the UK’s presidency of the G7 and hosting of COP – to show leadership on the international stage. 

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special? 

Like others I won’t be taking much time off over the new year period as we’ll be ensuring our parts of the system needed for EU transition are operating. I love Christmas carols, so I’ll miss attending the annual Whitehall Carol Concert in person this year - but I’ll definitely be joining it virtually, and the Whitehall Choir concert (I’m the choir’s president). On the day itself we’ll be competitively playing board games as usual, but this year it’ll be those which don’t involve sharing dice or cards - our latest find is “Confident” (can be done via Zoom too!).


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