World

Neil Ferguson’s ‘Error of Judgment’

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson speaks at a news conference in London, England, January 22, 2020. (Reuters TV)
A tale of death, sex, and lousy leadership.

Yesterday, the news that the U.K. now has the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe coincided with the Telegraph’s revelation that Neil Ferguson, the lead epidemiologist at Imperial College and key adviser to the British government, had been caught with his pants down, breaking his own social-distancing rules.

Ferguson, you may recall — sometimes nicknamed “Professor Lockdown” — was the chap who warned the government that there could be up to 500,000 deaths if it didn’t immediately change course, maneuvering from a mitigation to a suppression strategy against COVID-19. Such was his influence that, almost overnight, the government abandoned its pursuit of herd immunity, rolling out the biggest restrictions of healthy and law-abiding people’s civil liberties that the country has ever seen. Ferguson strongly believed that his advice would save countless lives, and perhaps it has. But why, then, didn’t he follow it himself?

All while lecturing the public on the importance of cooperating with nationwide house imprisonment, Ferguson was conducting an affair with his married lover, who travelled across London on multiple occasions to “visit” him. The timeline provided by The Telegraph, who broke the story, leaves little room for excuses. It shows that while Ferguson briefed the country to stay put, his lover, superbly cast as the 38-year-old Antonia Staats (get it?), a left-wing activist, was traveling to and fro between her husband, their kids, and her $2 million home for her quarantine rendezvous with her favorite government scientist. As if this story couldn’t get any more bourgeois, the husband apparently wasn’t bothered by this, because the couple have an “open marriage.” It is the kind of story the British press love. Hypocrisy, stupidity, and a brilliant distraction from more pressing (and depressing) matters.

Britain is currently in its seventh week of the lockdowns. In England and Wales, officials dispense a fine for breaking lockdown protocols every five minutes. Hypocrisy is the only remaining sin in secular Britain. Of course, the fact that Staats is married is neither here nor there. Brits no longer expect government officials and advisers to be faithful spouses. The infuriating part is that her first visit coincided with a public warning from Ferguson that lockdown measures were essential and would have to be prolonged. Meanwhile, her subsequent visits occurred after she had told friends that she suspected her husband had contracted COVID-19. Ferguson himself spent two weeks in “complete isolation,” having contracted coronavirus. So, here is a person instructing the country on how to live, in order to “save lives,” via the most draconian measures ever willingly tolerated in a liberal democracy, while flouting his own rules.

“I made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action,” Ferguson said in a statement. “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.” His I’m sorry I was caught apology resembles the one used a month ago by Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, who was forced to resign after twice visiting her holiday home against government advice. “People across Scotland know what they need to do to reduce the spread of this virus and that means they must have complete trust in those who give them advice,” she said.

When asked by a journalist whether he thinks Ferguson ought to be prosecuted, Matt Hancock, the health minister, said that would be a matter for the police. In the meantime, Ferguson will now “step back” from his involvement in SAGE, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Ferguson’s critics will be enjoying his fall from grace. Though the lockdowns are generally popular in Britain, some feel that the U.K. made a mistake in departing from the “herd immunity” strategy, similar to Sweden’s, and that policymakers have become overly reliant on “science” based on incomplete data and ever-shifting models that often prove wrong.

In 2005, Ferguson said that up to 200 million people could be killed from the bird flu. But only 282 people died worldwide between 2003 and 2009. In 2009, he predicted that the swine flu would, as a “reasonable worst-case scenario,” cause 65,000 deaths. It killed 457. In 2001, his team at Imperial advised that 6 million cattle, sheep, and pigs be killed, costing the British economy £10 billion ($12 billion) — a move that was criticized by fellow professionals as a “serious error.” In relation to the coronavirus, the Stanford team under John Ioannidis says that the Imperial model is based on assumptions that could lead the predicted death-toll numbers to be “substantially inflated.” The Telegraph, in its report on Ferguson’s fall from grace, was sure to include these faulty predications as well.

So Ferguson made an “error of judgment” in breaking his own social-distancing rules, but does mean that he is also wrong in his coronavirus modeling? Not necessarily. The bigger story from yesterday is that the U.K. has the worst coronavirus death rates in Europe. It’s quite possible that a future public inquiry will reveal that this was due to the government’s slow, indecisive initial response. And that Ferguson is just one part of a much larger story about lousy leadership.

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