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UK police won't fine top scientist who breached lockdown rules

Scotland Yard criticised Professor Neil Ferguson’s behaviour as “plainly disappointing” but ruled out issuing a fine.

Professor Neil Ferguson (file photo).
Professor Neil Ferguson (file photo).
Image: BBC via PA Images

A TOP UK scientist will not face further action by police after accepting he made an “error of judgment” by breaching social distancing rules despite being a key figure in influencing the lockdown.

Scotland Yard today criticised Professor Neil Ferguson’s behaviour as “plainly disappointing” but ruled out issuing a fine because he “has taken responsibility” after resigning as a key government adviser in the coronavirus response.

The researcher, whose work was crucial in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to enforce strict conditions, stood down from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after allowing a woman to visit him at his London home.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Imperial College London professor had made the “right decision to resign” but that it was a matter for police to decide whether to take further action.

Scotland Yard said: “We remain committed to our role in supporting adherence to Government guidance and have made it clear that our starting position is explaining the need to follow the regulations with anyone who is in breach in order to keep people safe and protect the NHS.

“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.

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

The Metropolitan Police declined to say whether officers had spoken directly to Ferguson.

9,000 fines

His is not the first high-profile resignation of the pandemic, with Catherine Calderwood quitting as Scotland’s chief medical officer after making two trips to her second home.

Police spoke to Calderwood and issued her with a warning after the breach was made public.

The latest data shows more than 9,000 fines have been issued across England and Wales for flouting lockdown rules.

The Telegraph reported that Prof Ferguson allowed 38-year-old Antonia Staats, said to be his “lover”, to visit him at home in London at least twice during the lockdown, on 30 March and 8 April.

Downing Street denied that the government had pushed for his resignation, with the PM’s official spokesman saying No 10 was informed “just before” the story broke.

“The Prime Minister agrees with that decision. Social distancing regulations are there for a very clear purpose,” his spokesman said.

‘Extraordinary actions’ 

Hancock said he was speechless after learning of Ferguson’s “extraordinary” actions.

The Cabinet minister praised him as a “very eminent” scientist whose work has been “important” in the government’s response, but said he had to resign.

Asked about police involvement, Hancock told Sky News: “Even though I have got a clear answer to what I think, as a minister the way we run the police is that they make decisions like this.

“So I give them their space to make that decision, but I think he took the right decision to resign.”

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader and former director of public prosecutions, respected the Met’s decision.

“It’s right that Professor Ferguson has resigned after admitting he broke the rules. We all have a role to play in the fight against the virus,” Starmer’s spokesman said.

“Scotland Yard has made its decision and we respect that decision.”

Ferguson’s research warned that 250,000 people could die in the UK without drastic action before Johnson imposed restrictions.

“I accept I made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action. I have therefore stepped back from my involvement in Sage,” Ferguson said yesterday.

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

Imperial College London said Ferguson “continues to focus on his important research”.

The death toll from Covid-19 in the UK has surpassed 30,000 people - the highest death toll in Europe, and the second highest globally behind the US.

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