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Debt Didn’t Disappear During The Pandemic. Meet A Man Whose Job Was To Collect It.

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Among all the consumer protections that lawmakers have extended to Americans during the pandemic, relief from debt collection was not one of them. While emergency laws allowed people to put certain forms of debt like student loans and mortgages in forbearance, people whose debt took other forms — like credit card, auto, and payday loans — had no legal protections. Debt collection quietly hummed along as the pandemic caused mass death, disease, and unemployment.

Not only did collection companies still operate over the last year, they also offshored work to lower-cost labor markets as the jobless rate in the US soared. BuzzFeed News spoke to a person who worked in the Tijuana, Mexico, office of an American third-party collections company. He asked to be identified with a pseudonym to protect his identity. “Rick,” who is 20 years old and a Mexican citizen, said that for 10 hours a day, he logged into an automated call system that churned agents like him through hundreds of calls, back to back. He remembered trying to extract money from people who simply didn’t have it, and even one person who was being treated in the hospital for the coronavirus. “It feels bad because I also have my debts,” he said. Earlier this year, he quit.

Here’s Rick’s story, which has been edited for clarity and length.

I was unemployed in 2020 because I recently moved here to Tijuana. I saw a job ad on Facebook, and I had some friends who were working there who said it was recruiting for customer service and collections. The ad made it seem like this was a customer service job because you needed to have customer service experience. It wasn’t until I started training that they said that we were going to be collecting from people who were calling in and trying to make payments. And when we had more experience, we’d be making calls out to customers. I didn’t know.

I was a little bit thrown off by that because they weren’t really up front with it. I was working for call centers before, but for customer service, not collections. So it was kind of scary for me. But I needed the job. So I tried my best. We had just two weeks to learn everything in training. Since English is not the first language for some of us (my first language is Spanish), we needed to learn new words like “deferment” and “balloon payment” and what a borrower and creditor are. So it was interesting and challenging at the same time.

I’d go in at 6 a.m. and work for 10 hours a day to 4 p.m. Because of COVID, we sat two seats apart from one another. We always had to have our face masks on. There were about 90 agents on the team.

We have a system that is always dialing by itself throughout the whole day. The account number automatically pops onto the screen, and we would get access to the account. But dialing takes no more than 30 seconds, so we’d have one minute or less to see their information and how much they owed. We’d just have to go in and start the call without knowing much about the history of the account. Sometimes the system just connected us and people would already be saying, “Hello? Hello?” I didn’t feel ready to take care of something so important with so little time to prepare. That’s definitely something they should improve because people are going through bad times.

Typically, the system would dial more than 200 calls a day, back to back. Most of them didn’t answer. I’d talk to around 50 people a day. All the customers were based in the US. It was mostly personal loans and auto loans. If I needed to go to the restroom or if I needed a break, I could put myself in a function to stop receiving calls, even though the supervisors didn’t quite like that.

We don’t really have control over how many times we’re actually calling a customer. We don’t have a system to know. Sometimes a person would get 10 calls, and they were aggravated by that. Sometimes we’d get reconnected to the same person in one day, and we had to pretend we didn’t know or apologize to them.

Once my colleague called a person, and she was really mad. She said she had received at least 20 calls that day, and that she was not going to pay, that she was over with it. She was actually at the hospital. She said she had actually lost her husband to COVID, and now she was in the hospital with COVID getting oxygen and in very bad condition. But really, someone else would probably try to get in contact with her two hours later, and the day after that, because, once again, there’s really not much we could do about the calls.

There are some metrics we needed to meet. But it was not about how much money we collected. A quality assurance agent scored us on our “customer service.” They were trained to evaluate our calls. We had our scripts, and there were some scripts we needed to say word for word, verbatim. So they evaluated the customer service we provided mostly according to that; if you missed just one word, for example, then you would get a zero. I was doing OK.

In our scripts, first you go through the verification process. When it was time to collect, the consumer would explain the situation, like due to COVID or due to not working, they weren’t able to pay. We’d have to try at least two times to get a payment. We could offer some deferment, for example, or maybe a payment plan. On a normal day, more than half of the people I talked to couldn’t pay anything. Zero dollars.

It feels bad because I also have my debts. I also have things to pay for. So trying to get them to pay was not easy for me. Even without the pandemic, it’s hard to ask for money. But it’s more of a challenge when you know that everyone’s going through something that has affected a lot of people. I felt a little guilty asking people for money — but at the same time, we had to just keep on going with our job. We didn’t get involved trying to help out [the consumer]; we were just there to collect, and that’s something that our supervisors reminded us throughout the whole experience.

My pay was around 3,000 Mexican pesos [$150] per week. We’re really close to San Diego, so we tend to have a higher cost of rent here. So, I mean, I am able to survive with that. It’s nothing compared to someone who went to college. But, honestly, I know that since it is an American company, they could be paying more.

The job was mostly people being mad at you because you’re bothering them and trying to collect. Because of my experience working in call centers since I was 17, I was kind of used to people yelling at me. But it’s hard at the end of the day; it is hard for someone to be yelling at you and telling you mean things. I quit the debt collector job in February. I would like to do something else. I think the reason why I am still working for a call center now is because I’m used to it. And it actually pays better than other jobs since they’re American companies. ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Money Week series that looks at how the pandemic changed the ways we earn, owe, spend, and save money.

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Trump’s State Department Officials Fought Over Whether The Coronavirus Was A Chinese Bioweapon

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In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of COVID-19 that’s now spilling into public view.

In an open letter posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting” itself by accusing China of having deliberately engineered the coronavirus — despite there being no evidence to make that case.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pushing to include allegations that China had breached the international Biological Weapons Convention in a State Department report to Congress, which could have set off a diplomatic crisis with one of the US’s chief global rivals.

It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes in the midst of an acrimonious debate over the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis for the emergence of COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.

Sourcing his account to emails put into the public domain through reporting by Fox News and Vanity Fair, Ford’s Medium post detailed his increasingly fraught relationship with David Asher, a contractor in the State Department who was running its investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as pushing a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.

In the Medium post, Ford said that DiNanno signaled that the investigation was focusing on “China allegedly having violated the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone awry — or perhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world.”

“They clearly appeared to be coming at this from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They got squirrelly if you pushed back on whether there was evidence to support a biological weaponry finding over the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”

Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had breached the Biological Weapons Convention in an annual report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, mandated by US law, details nations’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.

“Their legal arguments sounded pretty weak to me. They never presented evidence of actual [bioweapons] work,” Ford said, adding that his colleagues were also arguing that China should have been found in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.

In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, a military historian and specialist on China policy, had told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community out of the loop of the department’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Since the Spring of 2020, Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Yu denied the claim that Pompeo had sought to keep experts from reviewing the investigation. “AVC’s inquiry was by no means a rogue and hush-hush operation—it cooperated with our national science labs, world renowned scientists of serious but different opinions, and several key agencies of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News by email. “Chris Ford is spinning a narrative contrary to facts to cover up his extreme hostility toward any worthy science-based inquiry supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.

Asher also disputed Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford didn’t have an investigation going on when I arrived and set about trying to get to the bottom of possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should be continuing in AVC,” he said by email.

DiNanno did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.

The debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a joint WHO-China report came up empty-handed yet judged a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the US and 13 other governments to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review probing two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to people, or was released in a lab accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pressed China to allow more studies by WHO experts into the origins of the coronavirus.

Leading scientists have also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.

Ford is a conservative with a record of being hawkish on the threats posed to the US by China. What triggered his open letter was that his former colleagues had, in his view, mischaracterized him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus may have escaped from a lab.

“I strongly supported looking into the ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis, which clearly is a real possibility,” Ford wrote in his Medium post. “But I’m not just saying this now. I said it at the time, too. A lot.”

The lab leak hypothesis isn’t a single unified theory, but rather a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.

Given a history of slip-ups at virology labs around the world, and a lack of full transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a lab in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has catalogued potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.

More elaborate versions of the theory suppose that scientists at the WIV or another lab in the city were engaged in well-intentioned but risky “gain-of-function” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes that would make it more likely to infect people.

Suspicion has fallen on Shi, because she had earlier collaborated on related experiments run by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to latch onto the cells it infects, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice.

Shi has denied running any similar gain-of-function experiments since that research was published in 2015. But secrecy surrounding research at the WIV and other labs means that speculation about this possibility continues.

The most extreme idea, regarded as a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.

In his Medium post, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” over getting the bioweapon claims vetted by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7 this year, an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has repeatedly argued that the lab leak theory deserves thorough investigation, was convened by the State Department to review the evidence.

They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis that claimed “beyond reasonable doubt” that SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a lab. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that they ignored the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.

In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote: “[H]is statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support key model inputs. Critically, we have no data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild.” Ford left the State Department the same day, after having previously announced his intention to step down.

DiNanno later responded: “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonotic [natural] vs. lab origin. We merely need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses there are, and factor this into our weighting of our present knowledge about bat coronaviruses.”

Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online over 160,000 times. “I have received no substantive criticism of my work,” he said. “My sense of the meeting was that they were trying as much as possible to simply dismiss me so they could write their report and move on to something else.”

On January 15, Pompeo’s State Department released a “fact sheet” on activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.

Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

The fact sheet also repeated longstanding US concerns about China’s transparency on its past research on bioweapons: “For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.” And it said the WIV had collaborated on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.

But the statement did not make the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese bioweapons research.

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Trump’s State Department Officials Fought Over Whether The Coronavirus Was A Chinese Bioweapon

Published

on

In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of COVID-19 that’s now spilling into public view.

In an open letter posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting” itself by accusing China of having deliberately engineered the coronavirus — despite there being no evidence to make that case.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pushing to include allegations that China had breached the international Biological Weapons Convention in a State Department report to Congress, which could have set off a diplomatic crisis with one of the US’s chief global rivals.

It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes in the midst of an acrimonious debate over the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis for the emergence of COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.

Sourcing his account to emails put into the public domain through reporting by Fox News and Vanity Fair, Ford’s Medium post detailed his increasingly fraught relationship with David Asher, a contractor in the State Department who was running its investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as pushing a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.

In the Medium post, Ford said that DiNanno signaled that the investigation was focusing on “China allegedly having violated the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone awry — or perhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world.”

“They clearly appeared to be coming at this from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They got squirrelly if you pushed back on whether there was evidence to support a biological weaponry finding over the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”

Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had breached the Biological Weapons Convention in an annual report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, mandated by US law, details nations’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.

“Their legal arguments sounded pretty weak to me. They never presented evidence of actual [bioweapons] work,” Ford said, adding that his colleagues were also arguing that China should have been found in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.

In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, a military historian and specialist on China policy, had told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community out of the loop of the department’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Since the Spring of 2020, Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Yu denied the claim that Pompeo had sought to keep experts from reviewing the investigation. “AVC’s inquiry was by no means a rogue and hush-hush operation—it cooperated with our national science labs, world renowned scientists of serious but different opinions, and several key agencies of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News by email. “Chris Ford is spinning a narrative contrary to facts to cover up his extreme hostility toward any worthy science-based inquiry supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.

Asher also disputed Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford didn’t have an investigation going on when I arrived and set about trying to get to the bottom of possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should be continuing in AVC,” he said by email.

DiNanno did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.

The debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a joint WHO-China report came up empty-handed yet judged a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the US and 13 other governments to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review probing two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to people, or was released in a lab accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pressed China to allow more studies by WHO experts into the origins of the coronavirus.

Leading scientists have also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.

Ford is a conservative with a record of being hawkish on the threats posed to the US by China. What triggered his open letter was that his former colleagues had, in his view, mischaracterized him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus may have escaped from a lab.

“I strongly supported looking into the ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis, which clearly is a real possibility,” Ford wrote in his Medium post. “But I’m not just saying this now. I said it at the time, too. A lot.”

The lab leak hypothesis isn’t a single unified theory, but rather a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.

Given a history of slip-ups at virology labs around the world, and a lack of full transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a lab in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has catalogued potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.

More elaborate versions of the theory suppose that scientists at the WIV or another lab in the city were engaged in well-intentioned but risky “gain-of-function” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes that would make it more likely to infect people.

Suspicion has fallen on Shi, because she had earlier collaborated on related experiments run by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to latch onto the cells it infects, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice.

Shi has denied running any similar gain-of-function experiments since that research was published in 2015. But secrecy surrounding research at the WIV and other labs means that speculation about this possibility continues.

The most extreme idea, regarded as a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.

In his Medium post, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” over getting the bioweapon claims vetted by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7 this year, an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has repeatedly argued that the lab leak theory deserves thorough investigation, was convened by the State Department to review the evidence.

They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis that claimed “beyond reasonable doubt” that SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a lab. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that they ignored the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.

In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote: “[H]is statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support key model inputs. Critically, we have no data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild.” Ford left the State Department the same day, after having previously announced his intention to step down.

DiNanno later responded: “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonotic [natural] vs. lab origin. We merely need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses there are, and factor this into our weighting of our present knowledge about bat coronaviruses.”

Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online over 160,000 times. “I have received no substantive criticism of my work,” he said. “My sense of the meeting was that they were trying as much as possible to simply dismiss me so they could write their report and move on to something else.”

On January 15, Pompeo’s State Department released a “fact sheet” on activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.

Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

The fact sheet also repeated longstanding US concerns about China’s transparency on its past research on bioweapons: “For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.” And it said the WIV had collaborated on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.

But the statement did not make the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese bioweapons research.

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Joe Biden Has Had His First Meeting With Queen Elizabeth As President

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Jack Hill / AP

President Joe Biden met with Queen Elizabeth II in England on Friday — the first time he has encountered the British sovereign as commander in chief.

The president, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, were photographed chatting with the Queen at an event for heads of state attending the G7 summit in Cornwall.

Photos showed the Queen — wearing pearls, white gloves, and a floral dress — smiling warmly as she spoke with the first lady outside a giant dome at an eco-park known as the Eden Project, where the leaders had gathered for an evening reception.

Biden is the 13th US president to meet with the Queen, whose reign began in 1953.


/ AP

Queen Elizabeth II and President John F. Kennedy as they pose at Buckingham Palace in London in 1961.

The 95-year-old monarch has met with every US leader during her time on the throne, except for Lyndon Johnson.

Her first meeting as queen was with Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, the same year she met Herbert Hoover more than two decades after he left the White House. In 1951, while she was still a princess, she also met Harry Truman.

Biden had previously met the queen in 1982 when he was a US senator.


Bob Daugherty / AP

President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II go horseback riding in the grounds of Windsor Castle, England, in 1982.

Friday’s meeting comes just two months after the queen lost her husband, Prince Philip, who died on April 9 at age 99.

Also present at the G7 event from the British royal family were Prince Charles; Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge; and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

In photos, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be seen chatting with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Prince Charles.


Jack Hill – WPA Pool / Getty Images

Friday was the first full day of talks at the summit, with Johnson telling those present it was an opportunity to “level up across our societies” and “build back better” after the coronavirus pandemic.

He also said leaders needed to address issues of economic inequality as well as climate change.

“I actually think that we have a huge opportunity to that because, as G7, we are united in our vision for a cleaner, greener world, a solution to the problems of climate change,” he added.

Before the evening reception, the Queen joined Biden and other world leaders for a group photo, where she made them laugh by asking, “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself?”

“Yes,” Johnson replied. “We have been enjoying ourselves in spite of appearances.”

The Bidens are due to visit Windsor Castle for a special private audience with the Queen on Sunday.

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