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UK scientists being drawn into 'very unpleasant' political situation | World news


Scientists who advise the government on its coronavirus strategy have warned they are being drawn into politics after the leading infectious disease modeller Prof Neil Ferguson stepped down as one of the cabinet’s most prominent advisers.

Ferguson, the head of the Imperial College team whose modelling persuaded ministers that Britain needed to order a lockdown to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths, resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Tuesday night.

Ferguson left the position after it emerged that his lover had visited his home on two occasions in March and April in a breach of the government’s official guidance on social distancing.

One scientific adviser to the government said Ferguson’s resignation had created “an awful lot of concern” and that the mood in the community was “very depressed”. The events revealed how university academics who lent their advice to government were having to cope with an increasingly difficult situation, the adviser added.

“He’s an academic researcher. He doesn’t make decisions. He’s not paid for any of this. We are being drawn into a political situation which is very unpleasant,” they said.

Ferguson had become one of the most trusted voices on the outbreak and took a prime role in discussing the reasons for the lockdown and social distancing measures. But that prominence led to him being portrayed as a decision-maker rather than an independent scientist whose team generated predictions that informed ministers about what strategies they might take.

“The media are presenting the scientists as decision-makers when they’re not. We are in the frontline when we shouldn’t be. We are not the story,” the adviser said. Unlike the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, the independent university academics who sit on Sage do not have teams to manage their media appearances and support them.

Following Ferguson’s exit from Sage, his place on the expert advisory group is expected to be filled by a senior colleague at Imperial who works on the outbreak models.

Another scientist advising government on the coronavirus outbreak was “furious” at how Ferguson had been treated and said Sage had lost a “dedicated, hardworking and world class” scientist. “It will really damage morale,” the adviser said.

“I absolutely do not think it was a resigning situation. He doesn’t work for the government, he doesn’t make policy. He’s a scientist who works for a university and he spends hours and hours on these committees because it’s the right thing to do. He made a mistake. We all make mistakes.”

Prof Anthony Costello, a former director at the World Health Organization, questioned why the story about Ferguson breaching social distancing rules a month ago was reported in the Daily Telegraph on the day that Britain’s official death rate overtook Italy’s, and before an imminent decision to relax the lockdown. Another scientific adviser who spoke to the Guardian said: “Ferguson was on the front pages when Britain having the highest death rate in Europe should have been splashed everywhere.”

The Telegraph revealed that Antonia Staats had crossed London from her family home to visit Ferguson on at least two occasions, on 30 March and 8 April, since lockdown measures were imposed.

On Wednesday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told Sky News that he thought Ferguson had made the right decision to resign, adding that he would back the police in any action they wished to take over the incident. But while a Met police statement criticised Ferguson’s behaviour as “plainly disappointing” it ruled out issuing any fine.

Hancock said physical distancing rules were very important and everyone should follow them. He said he had supported the Scottish police warning to Dr Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish chief medical officer who visited her second home during lockdown.

He described Ferguson’s decision to flout lockdown rules as “extraordinary” and one that had left him “speechless”. He said he would not have fought for Ferguson to keep his job.

Prof Robert Lechler, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said Ferguson’s team would continue to provide valuable input to Sage. “In some ways, this incident is a consequence of scientists having a higher profile and with that attracting more public gaze and scrutiny. This type of thing goes with the territory that scientists are currently in – we the scientific community all need to understand that and I’m sure we’ll all reflect on it.”



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