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The isolation diaries II: still not going out


Ivory Tower: more exclusive extracts from the journals of the great and good during lockdown

Boris Johnson, prime minister

Got up, looked out the window, brushed teeth. Sat in the garden with Dilyn. Had a cup of tea, read the Telegraph, not much in it.

Looked out over the Chequers estate, had a boiled egg. Pulled my dressing gown around me against the cold. Looked out over the Chequers estate.

Carrie says, “There is a red box here for you.” I say, “Just put it on the pile with the other ones.” I pat Dilyn and look out over the Chequers estate.

Carrie says, “Do you regret shaking hands with so many sick people?” I reply, "that’s no way to talk about the cabinet,” and look out over the Chequers estate.

Matt Hancock, health secretary

It’s difficult being a cabinet minister and juggling home schooling. We’ve had emails from teachers saying that our children are not engaging with their online assignments.

I explain to the teachers, the children might not have done the work, but the important thing is that they have the capacity to do the work. I’ve made a promise that the kids will get 100,000 worksheets per day completed by the end of the month.

The teachers seem to think that is barely credible. The children are asking if they can have “a lame badge” if they do it. It’s hard to keep up. Is that the name of a band?

Michelle Donelan, universities minister

This week, I have mostly been doing Facebook Q&As with students. One of them says, “The government told us all to go home, so why won’t you pay our rent?” I say, “We definitely didn’t tell anyone to go home.”

Nicola Dandridge at the Office for Students tells me that apparently the government did tell students to go home, but now they are advising them to stay in their term-time accommodation. I’m confused: “Does that mean the ones who’ve gone home should go back to their halls?” I ask.

“No, everyone should just stay home,” she says. “But which home?” I ask. “Their home, or their home home? What’s your advice?”

“It is very simple minister, just stay home,” says Dandridge, looking exasperated. “I think that’s confusing for students,” I tell her. “I was talking to you,” she says.

Amanda Solloway, science minister

When I first became minister, people told me to keep a diary. It would stand as a testament of all the things I’ve achieved in government. Being under lockdown has given me a chance to catch up on it.

Bit stuck at the moment, maybe it’s writer’s block. Perhaps I should ask Dom for some tips. He is always writing long blogs and seems to know a lot about government science policy.

He’s very good like that. Dom says he’s writing a post-Covid industrial strategy, but he has sent me over instructions for a green energy device for counting down the days to the end of quarantine. He calls it “a potato clock”, or something. Let me see, first take one Maris Piper…

Trevor McMillan, vice-chancellor Keele University

This is definitely the right moment to release the knowledge exchange concordat. I’ve been working on this for a decade.

Now is the time to find out how staff in universities are getting out into their communities and interacting with people. Oh, hold on… can I start this again?

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive Universities UK

Sitting by the phone, waiting for the government to call about the UUK bailout request. They should be calling at any moment now. Nothing at the moment. So, I get up, walk around the house, make a cup of tea, and watch Cash in the Attic.

Still nothing, bit odd that. They did say they’d call back as soon as they could agree on something. Maybe I could rearrange my vinyl collection in order of date released?

Ah! An email has popped up in my in-box. “Greetings Mr Jarvis, I am the son of a Nigerian prince and am currently looking for a safe place to deposit my late grandfather’s fortune of £2bn. Please send me your bank details.” Bit of an odd way for the Treasury to do things, but hey ho, where’s my bank card got to?

Jo Grady, general secretary University and College Union

I’m very pleased at the way our report on university finances has landed this week. It’s part of our new “Bail Out the Bosses” campaign.

If the government does not agree to come to the rescue of financially distressed universities, it is going to be a disaster. Who is going to pay the pension contribution increase we have been on strike for?

People might say it’s a bit odd that UCU is now being backed by UUK and the Universities and College Employers Association. But, as UK universities face ruin and thousands of job losses, I can finally say to my members, “Look, we won the argument.”

David Sweeney, executive chair Research England

We are under pressure to come up with a new timetable for the Research Excellence Framework. We’ve been told to keep research on track, but with so much up in the air it’s hard to identify a new census date.

I throw a dart idly at the board in my study. It misses the picture of Gareth Southgate but lands on a three. Eureka! It’s a sign.

I throw a couple more darts and add up the score—31. That’s it, the new REF submission date will be 31 March. So I ring Kim Hackett to let her know. She says, “Yes David, but which year?”

Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser

I’ve got a fairly well-established routine now: 7.30 to 8.00 breakfast, then shower and grooming—got to keep up the thinking woman’s Stanley Tucci look.

After that I start decluttering my office. Some people say I should be keeping everything in case there is a public inquiry, but I tell them a clean desk is a healthy desk.

The press is clamouring for the names of the scientists who have been advising the government. I tell them, it’s mostly been Chris Whitty.

I’ve somehow managed to mislay all the other names, but 20 years after this is all over, I’ll definitely write about it in a column for The Times—that’s part of our commitment to open science.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer

These journalist are pretty persistent; they seem to have got the idea from somewhere that I have been mostly responsible for the scientific advice to the government. I tell them that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It has mostly been Jenny Harries and Jonathan Van-Tam. I wasn’t even in the room, most of the time. I’ve been self-isolating, like Dominic Cummings, totally out of the loop.

A journalist asks if I’m worried that Boris Johnson is preparing fall guys? I’m confused, Boris has already been discharged and he was in St Thomas’ not Guy’s.

Dominic Raab, first secretary of state

One of the best things about being prime minister, err… acting prime minister, is that I have got to meet so many clever boffins in science and medicine. The other day, I asked whether the coronavirus might disappear in the warm weather, the next time the sun passed around the earth.

They told me, “No, and actually the earth passes around the sun.” I had not quite understood the full extent of this.

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party

I say, “Let me be clear, I will not oppose for the sake of it; instead I will engage constructively.” But the milkman says, “That’s all very well but are you going to pay this bill or not?”

I tell him that now is not the time to reveal my financial backers, but I will do so in accordance with the proper procedure. He says, “Have it your way, but I’m going to have to cancel your order, mate.”

“Do you take Apple Pay?” I ask.

Dominic Cummings, special adviser

In quarantine I have been gathering my strength and waiting to return. I try to call Boris but oddly no answer.

So I leave a message: “Boris, search your feelings, you know it to be true. When you left, I was but the learner, now I am the master. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy.

“Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen. You don’t know the power of the dark side. Call me if you get this, also got some expenses for you to approve, bye.”

Terms of reference: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be shared widely like the job of addressing the nation at a Downing St press conference. Want to suggest a new date for the REF? Anyone? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchresearch.com