What does Neil Ferguson’s resignation mean?

The scientist’s resignation from the government's advisory committee on coronavirus carries both general and specific political risks.

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One of the most prominent figures in the UK’s coronavirus response, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, has resigned from the government’s scientific advisory committee this evening. 

In a rather extraordinary story from the Telegraph, it was revealed that Professor Ferguson has been breaking his own social distancing guidelines by allowing his lover to visit him at his home since the lockdown began, prompting his apology and resignation.

This is not the first story of its kind, but the second since this crisis began: Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, stepped down at the start of April after she was photographed visiting her second home, having strictly advised the Scottish public not to do so. 

The hypocrisy will rankle deeply with many members of the public who have made huge personal sacrifices to adhere to the very rules that these leading scientific advisers have preached and broken. At a time when a successful pandemic response must be underpinned by strong public trust, any event that undermines that is a risk for the government. This is particularly the case when scientists have been used throughout the crisis to bolster the credibility of politicians, as one of the consistently most-trusted sources of information during this pandemic.  

But some may have sympathy for the specifics of Ferguson’s case. As he said in his apology, he was acting on the probably correct assumption that he has immunity to the virus, having tested positive for the virus and isolated for two weeks. (Although there is no evidence as to how long immunity to this coronavirus lasts, we know from other coronaviruses that immunity tends to last at least several months. With the caveat that these actions were not allowed according to government guidelines, it is a safe assumption that Ferguson was immune to Covid-19 when he reportedly met with his lover, just after his two-week period of isolation with the virus.)

But beyond the obvious intrigue and challenges thrown up by a key adviser’s resignation at a time of crisis, there are some rather specific political ramifications from the fact that the adviser in question is Ferguson. He is the epidemiologist whose modelling produced the forecast that more than 500,000 Britons could die without lockdown measures, prompting the government’s change in strategy to implement the “stay at home” policy. Ferguson is already an internet hate figure among those who object to the lockdown; now those who seek to discredit his advice need only point to the fact that Ferguson himself did not adhere to it.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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