In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about professor Neil Ferguson

Government scientific adviser resigns after breaking lockdown rules to see married lover

Professor Neil Ferguson has resigned as a senior government adviser on coronavirus after breaking lockdown restrictions by repeatedly allowing his married lover to visit his home.

The 51-year-old, whose advice has guided the government’s social distancing strategy, said he regretted “undermining” messages on social distancing.

What did Ferguson do?

Ferguson welcomed his lover, Antonia Staats, into his home during the lockdown on two occasions, according to The Telegraph, which broke the story.

Staats - described as a “left-wing campaigner” - reportedly travelled across London from the home she shares with her husband and their children in the south of the capital to be with Ferguson, nicknamed Professor Lockdown.

Her first visit, on 30 March, coincided with a public warning by the government scientist that lockdown measures would need to continue into June.

Her second visit, on 8 April, went ahead even though Staats - “understood to be in an open marriage”  - had told “friends she suspected that her husband, an academic in his 30s, had symptoms of coronavirus”, the newspaper reports.

Ferguson has told The Telegraph that believed himself to be “immune” to the Covid-19 coronavirus after having already been infected.

The scientific community broadly believes that the human body builds up immunity after contracting the virus, with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance previously saying that while multiple infections can happen, “they’re rare”.

“In any infectious disease, there are cases where people can catch something again,” Vallance said at a press briefing in March. “There’s nothing to suggest that this is a common occurrence in this disease but we are learning as we go along.”

Ferguson self-isolated for two weeks after testing positive for the new coronavirus that same month, The Telegraph reports.

“Sigh. Developed a slight dry but persistent cough yesterday and self-isolated even though I felt fine. Then developed high fever at 4am today. There is a lot of Covid-19 in Westminster,” he tweeted on 18 March.

The following day, he wrote that his infection fears had been confirmed after being “tested given my recent proximity to people leading the UK response”.

Less than a week later, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, clarified at a Downing Street briefing that “if the two halves of a couple are currently in separate households, ideally they should stay in those households”.

“The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forwards, they should test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household,” Harries added.

What has the reaction been?

Announcing his resignation, Ferguson told The Telegraph: “I accept I made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action. I have therefore stepped back from my involvement in Sage [the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies].

“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.

“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.”

His resignation has been welcomed by high-profile figures including former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who said: “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.”

Others were more sympathetic, however.

Senior Tory MP Charles Walker said: “People will be desperately missing those that they love, and I totally understand if that separation becomes too much to bear at times.”

A government spokesperson confirmed Ferguson’s resignation but did not comment further, reports The Guardian. Staats, 38, has also declined to comment.

Meanwhile, a statement from Imperial College London - where Ferguson leads the team that produced the computer-modelled data which led to the lockdown - said the epidemiologist “continues to focus on his important research”.

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