What would you do if you’d booked a live Microsoft Teams call during a national lockdown but your laptop wasn’t working? Use your mobile phone? Call the whole thing off?
Or would you have someone drive over 150 miles to fix your computer? If you’re Stanley Johnson, the choice is yours.
The prime minister’s father was booked to do an online discussion with students at the University of Buckingham earlier this week. So an IT specialist from the private university drove to his rural estate near Exford in west Somerset just to see if he could repair Johnson’s laptop.
The technician brought his young son with him to Stanley Johnson’s farm in the days leading up to the broadcast. At 79 years of age, government guidance advises that Johnson “take particular care” during the lockdown.
The surprising 300-mile round trip was confirmed live on air as part of an online ‘fireside chat’ between Johnson and Buckingham's vice-chancellor, the prime ministerial biographer Anthony Seldon, on Tuesday evening.
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"Can I just say, I'd like to thank [the IT technician] from the University of Buckingham team here, who travelled all the way down with his young son to Stanley, to take the laptop. Thank you very much indeed [technician] for all that you do to make these [events] happen," Seldon said towards the end of the hour-long broadcast.
Johnson chipped in, with an enthusiastic, "Hear, hear!" Seldon added his thanks to "Stanley, for looking after [technician] and his son, his young son so very generously indeed".
openDemocracy understands from a source close to the university that the technician was sent on the 300-mile round trip to Exmoor after Johnson called Buckingham last week saying that he was experiencing technical difficulties ahead of the online discussion. When the technician found he couldn’t repair the laptop, he supplied a substitute of his own.
When asked about the unusual trip, Johnson told openDemocracy: “There is absolutely no story here at all. It’s just not worth pursuing.”
“This is an IT guy. He was authorised to travel. He respected the rules,” Johnson added.
A spokeswoman for Buckingham University said that the technician had taken his son with him to Exmoor due to a lack of childcare facilities and that the child had remained in the car throughout the visit. The spokeswoman also said and that the IT specialist had worked alone, had worn personal protective equipment and disinfected all surfaces.
Stanley Johnson has been a vocal sceptic of the lockdown. The prime minister’s father has already said he breached lockdown regulations for over-70s to find out the name of his grandson from a local newsagent.
His eldest son, Boris, has been heavily criticised for staunchly defending Dominic Cummings after his special advisor drove from London to Durham when he thought he might have COVID-19 instead of following government guidance to stay at home in those circumstances.
On air, Seldon and Johnson joked about people not following the lockdown rules, with Seldon quipping: "I should comment that your life will be watched more closely for breaches of lockdown." This prompted Johnson to laugh out loud and answer: "Not like Dominic Cummings!" Seldon added: "No trips up to Barnard Castle!" and Johnson answered: "No! No!"
British public health experts have warned that adherence to government advice could drop in the wake of the prime minister’s decision to stand by Cummings.
During the University of Buckingham broadcast, Johnson also read the blurb from the new edition of his 1982 novel 'The Virus', which concerns “a deadly pandemic, a randy epidemiologist, a cynical US president”, with a hero who is chief epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Johnson has dismissed accusations that he is cashing in on COVID-19 by reissuing the thriller this summer.
Johnson had been slated as an in-person guest in the ‘Fireside Chat’ series hosted by Seldon. But with the lockdown of the last two months, the conversations have moved online, and Johnson agreed to do the event virtually.
The oldest of the UK’s five private universities, Buckingham has long-standing links with the Conservative Party. As education secretary, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the creation of Buckingham in 1973 as an experiment in private-sector education provision, and the university has a particularly close relationship with the corporate-funded think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Earlier this month, Seldon announced that he would be leaving Buckingham in October. In February, Mary Archer, wife of Jeffrey Archer, was made the university’s chancellor.
It is not known when Stanley Johnson relocated from his house in north London to his country house in Somerset. When asked about this by the Mirror last month, he replied, "I've lived in this house for 51, no, no, 71 years actually, now I come to think of it, 71 years. If you look at the 1970 ‘Who's Who’ you'll see it's listed as my home address – it has been ever since. So I'd say that's the end of that."