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Imperial scientist quits Sage after breaking lockdown rules

Image: Marshaj2020 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Neil Ferguson’s March paper had been instrumental in the decision to impose a UK-wide lockdown

Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson has quit his role as a government adviser on coronavirus after a woman reportedly visited his home twice during lockdown.

In a statement to The Telegraph newspaper, Ferguson said: “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 [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,” he said. “I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing.”

Ferguson added that the government guidance was “unequivocal” and “there to protect all of us”.

A paper produced by Ferguson and his team in March is thought to have been instrumental in the decision to impose a UK-wide lockdown.

The report—titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce Covid-19 mortality and healthcare demand—predicted that uncontrolled spread of the disease could cause 510,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million in the US, concluding that suppression of the virus was “the only viable strategy at the current time”.

The news comes as the number of people who have died from Covid-19 in the UK reached 29,427 on Tuesday, seemingly the highest death toll in Europe.

“The modelling work from Professor Ferguson’s lab is the work of many hands—it is scrutinised and used by other scientists around the world,” said James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute. “The personal life of Professor Ferguson is not a factor in the modelling studies his group carry out and does not undermine the utility of the work.”

“The government’s need for modelling based insights is unchanged,” he added. “As Professor Ferguson has stepped down from Sage, other experts will now analyse the insights from multiple groups in order to prepare advice to government.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight