Prof Neil Ferguson is the academic whose modelling evidence has been central to not just Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy, but for those strategies in France, Germany and the US too. His resignation is a huge blow to the government’s authority on the pandemic.

It was his work that prompted a seismic shift in government policy in the UK response from essentially letting the virus spread through the population to the wholescale stay-at-home policy now in place.

The evidence that changed the government’s policy came from the centre he founded with colleagues at Imperial College, the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, which collaborates with the World Health Organization.

His decision to resign from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), after allowing his lover to visit him at home during the lockdown while lecturing the public on the need for strict social distancing, will leave a gaping hole for ministers to fill.

Ferguson, 51, had only just finished a two-week spell self-isolating after testing positive for coronavirus before being confronted by the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday.

It will be a crushing fall for the slim, bespectacled, intense workaholic whose face has become a familiar sight on television screens over the past six weeks.

As head of the department at Imperial College London since 2012 Ferguson carries with him 20 years of experience of studying pathogen outbreaks – foot and mouth disease in 2001, Sars in 2003, swine flu in 2011, Mers in 2012, and Ebola and Zika in 2014.

He modelled the spread of all those outbreaks, advising five UK prime ministers in the process. But all that seems like a practice run for 2020.

In February data began emerging from northern Italy, the first place in Europe to feel the force of the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, in November.

“This virus is probably the one that concerns me the most, of everything I’ve worked on,” Ferguson said in an early TV interview mid-February, when ministers were still focused on how they would implement Brexit.

On 16 March, about a month after the earlier interview, Ferguson delivered a 20-page paper to Johnson which transformed the UK’s strategy and has been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.

He told ministers that more than 500,000 people could die if the government continued with its stated strategy of allowing the disease to spread.

Eight days later, the government scrapped the strategy in favour of suppressing the virus with a lockdown to save lives and protect the NHS.

Ferguson’s work has gone on to form the strategies pursued by the White House, in the US, and the governments of France and Germany, according to reports.

He is dedicated to his profession, according to his colleague Christl Donnelly, a professor of statistical epidemiology based at Oxford University most of the time, as well as at Imperial. She said: “He works harder than anyone I have ever met. He is simultaneously attending very large numbers of meetings while running the group from an organisational point of view and doing programming himself. Any one of those things could take somebody their full time.

“One of his friends said he should slow down – this is a marathon not a sprint. He said he is going to do the marathon at sprint speed. It is not just work ethic, it is also energy. He seems to be able to keep going. He must sleep a bit, but I think not much.”

Ferguson was one of a number of people at the highest levels of government to contract the virus. On 17 March, he took part in a 5pm press conference at No 10 Downing Street, greeting senior members of Johnson’s cabinet before delivering a speech and leaving.

The next morning he woke with a dry cough and tested positive for Covid-19. In the days that followed, the prime minister, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, also reported symptoms of the virus.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ferguson expressed his regret for ignoring the government’s guidance.

“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,” he said.

Those regrets could echo around Whitehall as ministers and senior civil servants rue the loss of an expert who transformed government policy.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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