A leading epidemiologist who advised the UK government on its coronavirus response resigned from his government post on Tuesday, after the Telegraph newspaper revealed he broke the lockdown rules he helped shape by allowing his reported lover to visit his home.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who is based at Imperial College in London, is one of the architects of the UK government’s stay-at-home strategy and was a prominent member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which has been spearheading the country’s coronavirus response.
The Telegraph reported Tuesday that a woman whom it described as his married lover had visited Ferguson’s home in London at least twice despite social distancing guidelines.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that he was left speechless by the “extraordinary” revelation and that Ferguson had taken the right decision in resigning from his advisory position.
“Clearly the social distancing rules are there for everyone and they are incredibly important and they are deadly serious, and the reason is that they are the means by which we have managed to get control of this virus,” Hancock said Wednesday.
News of Ferguson’s resignation came on the same day that the UK overtook Italy as the country with the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe. The UK Department of Health and Social Care said 29,427 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 had died as of Monday afternoon.
In a statement to CNN, Ferguson said he accepted he made “an error of judgement and took the wrong course of action,” and had therefore stepped back from his involvement in SAGE.
“I acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus and completely isolated myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms,” he said.
“I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic.
“The government guidance is unequivocal, and is there to protect all of us.”
Hancock told Sky News it was up to the police to decide whether any action should be taken against Ferguson.
“Professor Ferguson is a very eminent and impressive scientist and the science that he has done has been an important part of what we’ve listened to,” the health secretary said. “I think he took the right decision to resign.”
Scotland Yard said Ferguson’s behavior was “plainly disappointing” but ruled out taking action against him – such as issuing a fine – because he had “taken responsibility” for his error of judgment, according to the UK’s PA news agency.
Professor Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, told the UK’s Science Media Centre that he did not believe Ferguson’s resignation would have any material impact on the advice received by the government, despite his high profile.
“It’s critical, I think, to understand that we are in an era of team science. Prof Ferguson is an individual – he’s the leader of a team, but it’s the team as a whole who will, I am sure, continue to provide valuable input to SAGE,” Lechler said.
The epidemiologist is not the only leading figure in Britain’s coronavirus response to have been caught flouting the rules on social distancing.
Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, resigned from the position last month after she was photographed by a Scottish newspaper near her family’s second home, in a different part of the country to her Edinburgh address.
She was given a formal police warning for leaving her home without proper excuse.