Neil Ferguson: Government coronavirus adviser quits after home visits from married lover

Key scientist stands down from role after admitting ‘error of judgement’ over social distancing

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 05 May 2020 21:11 BST
Neil Ferguson: 'We will have to maintain some level of social distancing... until we have a vaccine'

A key scientist advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic has resigned after flouting social distancing restrictions, admitting he made an “error of judgement”.

Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist whose modelling convinced Boris Johnson to press ahead with a UK-wide lockdown, stood down from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after allegations emerged in The Daily Telegraph.

It was claimed that Prof Ferguson allowed a woman – described as his ”lover” – to visit him at home in London on at least two occasions during the lockdown despite strict rules against mixing households. The woman reportedly lives with her husband and children.

Prof Ferguson’s research with Imperial College London colleagues was influential in Boris Johnson’s decision to impose a lockdown in the UK, after it forecast that 250,000 people could die in the UK without drastic action.

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 have therefore stepped back from my 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 continued: “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.”

The day after the lockdown was announced, on 24 March, 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 woman who visited Prof Ferguson is said to have entered his home on 30 March and 8 April.

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

Prof Ferguson led the Imperial team which modelled the spread and impact of Covid-19 in a government-commissioned report.

Their paper warned merely slowing the spread of the virus, which had at that point been the aim, would have led to the NHS being overwhelmed by cases. Around 250,000 people would have died in the UK in that scenario, according to the model, but the research said stricter measures would drastically reduce this.

The prime minister announced the lockdown in the wake of the report on 23 March, ordering the public to stay at home and shops to shut.

Prof Ferguson said on 18 March that he had the fever and cough symptoms of Covid-19 and that there was a small risk he had infected others.

“The more serious point is that it highlights the need for the response which has been enacted,” he said at the time.

He faced criticism on Tuesday night after his breach of lockdown emerged.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, told The Daily Telegraph: “Scientists like him have told us we should not be doing it, so surely in his case it is a case of we have been doing as he says and he has been doing as he wants to.

“He has peculiarly breached his own guidelines and for an intelligent man I find that very hard to believe. It risks undermining the government’s lockdown message.”

His decision to leave Sage comes after the high-profile resignation of Dr Catherine Calderwood, who as Scotland’s chief medical officer, faced a storm of criticism for making two trips to her second home during despite restrictions.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in