A top UK government scientist, who was behind the country’s strategy to impose strict lockdown measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, has resigned after a media report revealed that he broke the rules and allowed a woman he was said to be in a relationship with to visit his home during the lockdown.
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist whose modelling convinced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to press ahead with a UK-wide lockdown, quit the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) after allegations emerged in The Daily Telegraph.
He admitted that he had allowed a woman Antonia Staats to visit him at his London home after travelling across the UK capital from her home, which she shares with her husband and children, on at least two occasions.
The movement goes against the very strict stay at home and save lives advice of the government, put in place by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prompted by the scientific team led by Ferguson.
The incidents took place soon after the 51-year-old leading epidemiologist from Imperial College London had completed a two-week spell self-isolating after testing positive for coronavirus.
“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,” said Ferguson after the report.
“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,” he said.
The scientist, however, stressed that the government’s advice on social distancing remains “unequivocal”, adding that it was there “to protect all of us”.
UK Security Minister James Brokenshire said the senior scientist “made the right decision” and that the government will “continue to be informed” by SAGE.
“We have a range of experts that will continue to support ministers,” he said.
The first of the visits by Staats, 38, was on March 30, which coincided with a public warning by Prof Ferguson that the UK’s one-week-old lockdown measures would have to remain until June.
Staats, a left-wing campaigner, made a second visit on April 8 despite telling friends she suspected that her husband, an academic in his 30s, had symptoms of coronavirus, the newspaper report claims.
“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,” said Conservative Party MP and former minister Ian Duncan Smith.
Ferguson’s resignation comes a month after Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, had to resign when it was revealed she had broken lockdown rules by making two trips back and forth to a second home.
Under the government’s guidelines in the UK, people are expected to stay at home and allowed to move out only for one form of daily exercise and essential shopping.
The measures have been in place since March 23 to try and flatten the curve of the rising number of cases of COVID-19, the UK death toll from which reached 29,427 on Tuesday – the highest number of virus deaths in Europe.
However, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which includes deaths where the virus is suspected and not just where tests have been carried out, brings the total number even higher to 32,375.