Go back

The isolation diaries


Ivory Tower: exclusive extracts from the world of research policy and universities under lockdown

Boris Johnson, prime minister

This really is a stinker. Not like when we used to hang one on after a night at the Bullingdon, quite different. The doctor says I’m fevered but I tell him that’s what my columns are usually like in the Telegraph.

Had a call from Dom who tells me that some people want to give me the clap to show their support. I say, that’s a funny way of doing it but with all the clinics busy I suppose it’s inevitable.

I’m chairing meetings while on the Zoom. I think Michael Gove used to do the same thing when he was younger.

Even though I have been feeling poorly, it is important to send a message about being positive to the nation. Having watched my lockdown video on Twitter the chief medical officer said, “yes that’s definitely what being positive looks like”.

Carrie has morning sickness and is feeling sorry for herself. She isn’t answering my calls but I’m used to that having been in the doghouse so often.

Looking forward to finding out what our brave boffins have come up with since I’ve been away. James Dyson says he can help apparently. Well, with all the hand washing going on I suppose we are going to need a lot more Air Blades.

Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to prime minister

Just to be clear, I was not running away from Downing Street, I was plotting at pace. I am now in self-isolation in my hollowed-out volcano…err…basement strong room.

I can still see what everyone is up to over the internet. I don’t use Zoom, I just look at what Facebook data Cambridge Analytica has.

Being under lockdown has given me plenty of time to think about the Advanced Research Projects Agency. When I get out, the first task I’m going to give them to work on is an army of Nano-drones to do loo roll home deliveries.

Patrick Vallance, chief scientific officer

It’s quite remarkable. For a week I stood next to the PM and the chief medical officer at the Downing St press conferences warning about the spread of Covid-19. We made it clear that anyone could be an asymptomatic super-spreader but that testing in the community was not a priority.

Boris has now got it and Chris Whitty is showing symptoms, but curiously I’m fine…OMG! Do you think I’m the super-spreader? I better get myself tested. Oh hold on, we’re not doing that.

We are following the science. The problem is that the science can’t make up its mind. I told Boris I would send him over some slides of models I was looking at. He seemed very enthusiastic.

Michelle Donelan, universities minister

I phone the Treasury about asking for a bail-out for universities. An automated voice says, “you are number 86,759 in the queue, please hold”.

Living in the countryside I am seriously regretting not upgrading my Wi-Fi before all this happened. On Zoom calls with the education secretary I can’t tell whether his face is frozen, or he is just not talking.

Gavin says I need to look into university admissions. I tell him that whatever vice-chancellors declare in their expenses is up to them and the minister shouldn’t get involved.

Apparently, there is a thing called conditional unconditional offers. It sounds like when I phoned up BT to upgrade my broadband deal. They said they would take payment now and send an engineer round in September.

Amanda Solloway, science minister

We’ve been very busy at BEIS what with all the science going on. I’m self-isolating but I have ensured that I have a good daily work routine.

Every morning I get up and put on my white lab coat and then Zoom the universities to ask if they would like to donate any science equipment. I say I am collecting on behalf of the NHS and they ask me what hospital I’m working at?

I tell them that I’m in charge of science for the UK and for some reason they all say, “does Dom know?” I assume they mean Dominic Raab who is the PM’s designated survivor while Boris is in lockdown.

So, I call Dom Raab to let him know that there is lots of science equipment in universities. He says that he had not quite understood the full extent of this.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer

The one thing I always say to the ministers I advise is that this is about science not poll ratings. They must do the right thing and not court popularity.

My deputy Jenny Harries has been appearing on television in my absence. Apparently, she has become incredibly popular with her trustworthy demeanour. I can’t wait to get out of here.

I tell her once I’m better it will be me back in front of the cameras. She asks if she can have the Twitter gig then and be on the public health videos shared on social media. I tell her she’ll need to speak to my agent.

Nadine Dorries, health minister

Two pints of gold top and a peach yoghurt for mother. Sorry, I thought you said you wanted to see my isolation dairy. Hold on mother’s calling again…

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union

I’ve written to the education secretary to ensure that universities are shut down for the foreseeable future. He replies that the pensions and pay strikes are nothing to do with him.

The industrial action is on hold at the moment, so I have decided to volunteer for a local self-help group. I was elected leader after I split the vote between one woman who wanted to form an anarcho-syndicalist co-operative and a guy who was actually running the thing before I turned up.

I have now called for action short of a strike for volunteers delivering food to the elderly. They will only leave bags of shopping at the door of houses and will have the right to stay at home 23 hours per day like every other worker in the UK.

One elderly person in our street asked me, “what should I do about my pension?” I told her that 14 days is the usual period of action that UCU recommends. She said, “are you a doctor?” I told them my PhD wasn’t relevant at this point.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive Universities UK

I phone the cabinet office to find out about arrangements should the situation deteriorate. I ask whether there will be a place for some of the more senior vice-chancellors.

The cabinet secretary tells me that everyone will be judged on a case by case basis. I try to explain about the contribution that some of our VCs make to the country.

But the cabinet secretary says, “no one can be guaranteed a hospital bed”. I say, “no I meant a place in the emergency bunker under Whitehall once the food riots kick in and civil society breaks down”.

The CS goes away to check the list. He says, “there is only space available for paid-up members of the Platinum Club, everyone else will need to take their chances at the Athenaeum”.

I check my list of those whose subs are up to date. Not looking good for De Montfort.

Matt Hancock, health and social care secretary

Even though I should now be immune to Covid-19, I am washing my hands regularly—up to 20 times a day. While self-isolating I had some time to reflect on my advice to the nation and whether it has all been for the best.

I have no regrets but apparently, I was sleepwalking and muttering about health policy. Odd that, it’s not one of the usual symptoms.

Hand washing is so important, but I can never get mine clean enough. Out damned spot, I say. What need we fear a public inquiry when we have the 30-year rule in Whitehall. Who would have thought Nadine Dorries had so much milk on order?

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party (last day)

No one is laughing at free broadband now. See, I won the argument. What do you mean an engineer can’t come until September?

Terms of reference: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be shared widely like an invite to a virtual pub on Zoom. Want to submit an extract from your isolation diary? Want to say hello? Email: ivorytower@researchresearch.com