Backlash after scientist who broke COVID-19 lockdown resigns but minister who visited parents remains

Will Taylor
News Reporter

Questions have been raised over why a minister twice accused of breaking coronavirus lockdown rules remains in his job while a scientist who breaches restrictions resigned from a government science panel.

The Daily Telegraph has reported that Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, allowed visits by a woman to his home despite restrictions preventing separate households from meeting.

He has since stepped back from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after admitting “an error of judgment”, with health secretary Matt Hancock saying on Wednesday he was “speechless” over Ferguson’s actions.

Anna Soubry, the former MP who left the Tories in the last parliament over Brexit, tweeted that while Ferguson stepped down for breaking the rules, housing and communities secretary Robert Jenrick remained in post despite being accused of breaching restrictions in April.

Robert Jenrick, left, and Professor Neil Ferguson, right. The latter stepped down from Sage after breaking lockdown rules. (PA/Reuters)

The Daily Mail reported Jenrick had travelled from London to a family home in Herefordshire, while lockdown rules say you should avoid unnecessary travel and not to go to second homes.

In response, Jenrick said he had joined his family in Herefordshire after they decided he didn’t need to continue working in Westminster.

“I’ve been there since, I’ve been working from home and returned to Westminster last night to do this press conference because Parliament returns next week,” he said in April.

Jenrick was also criticised for visiting his parents in Shropshire following an article in The Guardian. In response, he tweeted: “For clarity – my parents asked me to deliver some essentials – including medicines.

Jenrick has been fronting some of the government's daily coronavirus press briefings, which are used to emphasise the importance of the rules. (Ian Vogler / Pool via AP)

“They are both self-isolating due to age and my father’s medical condition and I respected social distancing rules.”

He remains a minister and continues to appear in government briefings used to warn against breaking lockdown rules and emphasise how important they are for public health.

Yahoo News UK has approached his office for comment.

Prof Ferguson confirmed in a statement he had “stepped back” from Sage, which advises the government on its handling of the pandemic, and said he accepted he “made an error of judgement and took the wrong course of action”.

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“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 to control this devastating epidemic.

“The government guidance is unequivocal, and is there to protect all of us.”

Prof Ferguson was one of the more prominent members of Sage, and his work was crucial in Boris Johnson’s decision to enforce a strict lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The mathematician and epidemiologist led the Imperial modelling of various coronavirus scenarios for the government, developing one that showed about 250,000 deaths could take place without strict measures.

The Met Police said it does not intend to take action against Prof Ferguson.

“It is clear in this case that whilst this behaviour is plainly disappointing, Professor Ferguson has accepted that he made an error of judgment and has taken responsibility for that,” Scotland Yard said.

“We therefore do not intend to take any further action.”