Coronavirus: Matt Hancock 'speechless' at 'extraordinary' actions of Professor Neil Ferguson

May 06, 2020

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News he was "speechless" after it emerged one of the government's key scientific advisers had broken the UK's lockdown rules.

Mr Hancock described the actions of Professor Neil Ferguson as "extraordinary", after it emerged he allowed Antonia Staats, who is reported to be his lover, to visit him at home - in breach of official social distancing rules.

The Metropolitan Police, who have powers to act against those breaching lockdown restrictions, described Prof Ferguson's behaviour as "plainly disappointing" but will not pursue the matter.

"Professor Ferguson has accepted that he made an error of judgement and has taken responsibility for that," a spokeswoman said.

"We therefore do not intend to take any further action."

Prof Ferguson, an academic at London's Imperial College, has now quit the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which plays a central role in the UK's coronavirus response, following what he described as an "error of judgement".

"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," Mr Hancock said.

"I think he took the right decision to resign."

Asked if he thought Prof Ferguson should have been prosecuted for his apparent breach of lockdown rules, the health secretary added: "It's a matter for the police, as a government minister I'm not allowed to get involved in the operational decisions of police matters.

"But I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them."

He added: "They'll take their decisions independently from ministers - that's quite right, it's always been like that.

"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.

"So I give them their space to make that decision, but I think he took the right decision to resign."

Mr Hancock appeared on Sky News' "Ask the Health Secretary" event with Kay Burley, to answer some of the thousands of questions submitted by members of the public.

Asked if he had fought to keep Prof Ferguson on SAGE, the health secretary replied: "That's just not possible in these circumstances."

Last month, Dr Catherine Calderwood quit as Scotland's chief medical officer after making two trips to her second home.

She was issued with a warning by police about the UK's social distancing rules.

Prof Ferguson explained he had "acted in the belief" that he was immune from COVID-19, having previously tested positive for coronavirus and isolated himself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms.

Ms Staats was reported by the Daily Telegraph to live with her husband and their children in another house.

But Mr Hancock told Sky News that social distancing rules should be followed by everyone, even if they have already had coronavirus.

The health secretary revealed he himself had asked a similar question about immunity of England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, when he contracted and then recovered from COVID-19.

"Normally there's immunity and you're at much lower risk of coronavirus, if you've had it recently, but we don't know that for sure," Mr Hancock said.

"There's so many new things about this coronavirus that we don't know that that's the case.

"So I asked exactly that question of the chief medical officer - 'can I behave differently because I've now had it? Do I still have to do the social distancing?'

"And the answer was very clear, which is 'yes, we all have to abide by social distancing'."

:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

In mid-March, Prof Ferguson was the lead author of an Imperial College report which warned, without stringent social distancing measures, the UK could see 250,000 deaths.

Days later, the government announced the UK's lockdown.

Analysis: Did the government fight to keep eminent scientist? The clear message is no
By Tamara Cohen, political correspondent

It's a day of grim headlines for the government as UK death rates surpassed the rest of Europe; the government lost an eminent adviser to an embarrassing scandal - which the health secretary described as an "extraordinary" development which had left him "speechless" - and the chief scientist admitted ramping up testing earlier may have been "beneficial".

Mr Hancock did not play down how influential a role Prof Ferguson's modelling in March - predicting a surge in death rates to 250,000 without radical action - had played in the lockdown strategy.

But, as to whether the government had fought for their eminent scientist to stay on, he doesn't appear to have been consulted but stressed that the guidance must be obeyed, and the question of whether having already had COVID-19 gives you immunity is far from settled.

Mr Hancock is seen as one of the cabinet's lockdown hawks - insistent it must be kept going as long as necessary.

Rate this item
(0 votes)

HOW TO LISTEN

105.3FM

Online

Mobile Apps

Smart Speaker

Latest Tweets

Great TIP - @CYEastRiding @seaside1053 RT https://t.co/FPM57MeuJy
SEASIDE FM NEWS CENTRE - Coronavirus: Public transport restrictions will be eased to get people back to work - rep… https://t.co/HZzmvLUyNf
SEASIDE FM NEWS CENTRE - Coronavirus: Face masks 'absolutely a good idea' in shops but not compulsory -… https://t.co/XU3H4RYUO0
Follow Seaside FM 105.3 #StayAlertSavesLives on Twitter