Neil Ferguson: Police to take no action against professor after Matt Hancock brands lockdown violation as ‘extraordinary’

‘You can imagine what my views are,’ says health secretary after scientist resigns from advisory post with government

Matt Hancock says science adviser breaking lockdown rules to see lover is police matter

Police have said they will not take action against Professor Neil Ferguson for allegedly violating the UK’s coronavirus lockdown.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, suggested that officers should investigate the epidemiologist whose modelling convinced Boris Johnson to adopt nationwide restrictions.

“You can imagine what my views are,” Mr Hancock told Sky News on Wednesday. “It’s a matter for the police.”

Prof Ferguson stood down from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after it emerged that he had allowed a woman – described as his “lover” – to visit his London home on at least two occasions despite strict rules against moving between households.

The 52-year-old scientist said he had made an “error of judgement”.

Mr Hancock described the transgression as “extraordinary” and said that Prof Ferguson was right to resign from his position as a government adviser.

“Professor Ferguson is a very eminent and impressive scientist and the science that he has done has been an important part of what we have listened to,” he said. “I think that he took the right decision to resign.”

Scotland Yard said they would not take any further action against Prof Ferguson or the woman involved.

“We remain committed to our role in supporting adherence to government guidance and have made it clear that our starting position is explaining the need to follow the regulations with anyone who is in breach, in order to keep people safe and protect the NHS,” a statement from the force said.

“It is clear in this case that whilst this behaviour is plainly disappointing, Professor Ferguson has accepted that he made an error of judgement and has taken responsibility for that.

“We therefore do not intend to take any further action.”

Professor Neil Ferguson

The health secretary said he “absolutely” backed a separate police decision to issue a warning to Scotland’s former chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood for travelling to her second home during the lockdown, and said he would back them in whatever action they decided to take against Prof Ferguson.

“Absolutely I back the Scottish police and I would back the police here. They’ll take their decisions independently from ministers – that’s quite right, it’s always been like that,” he said.

“And that’s why – even though I’ve got a clear answer to what I think – as a minister, the way we run the police is that they make decisions like this.”

He said: “As a government minister, I am not allowed to get involved in the operational decisions on police matters, but I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them.

“They are the means by which we have managed to get control of this virus.”

Asked if he had fought to keep Prof Ferguson on Sage, the health secretary replied: “That’s just not possible in these circumstances.”

Prof Ferguson’s research with Imperial College London colleagues was influential in the prime minister’s decision to impose a nationwide lockdown, after it forecast that 250,000 people could die in the UK without the implementation of strict containment measures.

In a statement, the professor of mathematical biology said on Tuesday night: “I accept I made an error of judgement and took the wrong course of action.

“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.”

Prof Ferguson explained that he had “acted in the belief” that he was immune from Covid-19, having previously tested positive in early March and self-isolated for almost two weeks after developing symptoms.

The woman who visited Prof Ferguson is said to have entered his home on 30 March and 8 April.

However, Mr Hancock made clear he did not accept the scientist’s excuse that he believed he was immune because he had previously been infected.

The health secretary, who himself suffered a mild bout of Covid-19, said: “We don’t know that for sure and there’s so many new things about this coronavirus that we don’t know that’s the case.

“I asked exactly that question of the chief medical officer: ‘Can I behave differently because I’ve now had it or do I still have to do the social distancing?

“The answer was very clear – yes, we all have to abide by social distancing.”

Under the Health Protection Regulations, which were brought in to enforce the lockdown announced on 23 March, it is illegal to leave home “without reasonable excuse”.

Violating the law can be punished with a £60 fine, or arrest in more severe cases, although police have been instructed to use enforcement as a last resort.

Officials have made clear that travelling to visit a partner at their home would not count as an exemption.

The day after the lockdown was announced, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said that couples who do not cohabit must either move in together or not meet at all for the duration of the restrictive measures.

The security minister, James Brokenshire, described the professor’s resignation as a “matter of regret” but “appropriate”.

“I’m obviously saddened to hear this development and the actions Professor Ferguson has taken but, ultimately, I think it is the right course of action,” he told the BBC.

“I think Professor Ferguson has taken an appropriate course given the issues of ensuring there is clarity of message on upholding the rules and requirements on social distancing and just why that matters so much in terms of protecting our NHS and saving lives.”

A government spokesman confirmed that Prof Ferguson has stood down from Sage.

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