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Key British scientist in coronavirus fight quits after embarrassing lockdown breach

A sign above an underpass in London advises drivers to stay at home, as the country is in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

One of the British government’s key scientific advisors in the fight against the coronavirus has quit after receiving secret visits from his girlfriend amid a nationwide lockdown, prompting the health secretary to affirm Wednesday that the rules are “for everyone.”

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at London’s Imperial College, developed influential models predicting that hundreds of thousands would die from COVID-19 unless Britain imposed drastic restrictions to slow the disease’s spread. Ferguson’s advice was key in triggering the national lockdown in March. Under the rules, people are barred from visiting family and friends if they are not already living together.

Ferguson quit the government’s scientific advisory panel late Tuesday after the Daily Telegraph reported that a woman he was in a relationship with had crossed London to visit him at his home.

Queen Elizabeth II offered support to a country locked down in the coronavirus pandemic, promising the nation that it would rise to the challenge and overcome the outbreak.

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Ferguson said in a statement that he had “made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action.”

“I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic,” he said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Ferguson was “a very eminent and impressive scientist,” but “took the right decision to resign.”

Hancock told Sky News that the social distancing rules “are there for everyone, they are incredibly important and they are deadly serious. They are the means by which we have managed to get control of this virus.”

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Ferguson has become a well-known figure in Britain, making frequent media appearances during the outbreak. On March 18, he tweeted that he had a fever and cough, symptoms of COVID-19, and that there was a small risk he had infected others. High-profile figures in Britain to have battled the disease include Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spent days in intensive care, and Prince Charles.

Ferguson is the second scientific advisor in the U.K. to quit after failing to follow their own advice. Catherine Calderwood resigned as Scotland’s chief medical officer last month for twice traveling from Edinburgh to her second home.

As one of the founders of the MRC Centre for Global Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, Ferguson has conducted work that has been instrumental in shaping public health responses to outbreaks of diseases such as swine flu, Ebola and Zika. Ferguson has long advised authorities, including the World Health Organization and national governments in Britain, Europe and the U.S.

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On March 16, Ferguson and colleagues published a paper suggesting that even with some social distancing measures, Britain could see 250,000 coronavirus deaths and the U.S. might have about 1 million deaths. In a worst-case scenario, Ferguson predicted those figures could more than double in both countries.

The following day, Johnson advised Britons to work from home if possible and to avoid all unnecessary social gatherings.


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