Police could take action against top UK scientist who broke lockdown rules

Matt Hancock said he was speechless Neil Ferguson had allowed a woman to visit him at home

TOPSHOT - A member of the clinical staff wears personal protective equipment (PPE) as she cares for a patient at the Intensive Care unit at Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, on May 5, 2020.  NHS staff wear an enhanced level of PPE in higher risk areas such as critical care to minimise the spread of infection between staff and patients. Britain's death toll from the coronavirus has topped 32,000, according to an updated official count released Tuesday, pushing the country past Italy to become the second-most impacted after the United States. / AFP / POOL / Neil HALL

Britain's health secretary suggested that the police could take action against a top scientist who was instrumental in establishing the country's coronavirus lockdown after he quit his official position following media reports.

Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist on the advisory team helping the UK co-ordinate its pandemic response, said on Tuesday he had resigned from a key government panel after admitting to breaking the country's rules on social distancing.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said he was speechless at the front-page revelations and warned enforcement of the measures to stay at home and maintain social distancing outside the household by the police.

"It’s a matter for the police," he said on Wednesday. "As a government minister, I’m not allowed to get involved in the operational decisions of police matters. But I think that the social-distancing rules are very important and should be followed."

Prof Ferguson stepped down following media reports that he had allowed a woman to visit him at home.

"I accept I made an error of judgement and took the wrong course of action," he said.

"I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic."

The scientist said he had "stepped back" from his role on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) where he had argued for the March lockdown. A government spokesman confirmed his resignation.

Mr Ferguson's academic team produced model on the possible spread of the virus which has been repeatedly cited by ministers, and is seen as a turning point in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The model showed that under a reasonable worst-case scenario as many as 500,000 people could die. It contributed to the decision to impose the most far-reaching restrictions on daily life in Britain's peacetime history to stop the spread of the virus.

"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," Mr Ferguson 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."

A second government minister said the resignation ensured the continued clarity of the government's message to stay at home in most circumstances. "The underlying government advice is unequivocal," said James Brokenshire, the security minister. "He has taken an appropriate course."

Prof Ferguson's decision is the latest embarrassment for UK authorities after Scotland's chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood quit on April 5 after twice visiting her second home during the lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was in hospital with the disease and has now recovered, ordered the initial three-week lockdown on March 23.

Under the measures, "non-essential" shops and services were shut while residents were told not to go out except for exercise and to buy essential items. Police were given powers to fine those flouting the rules.

The lockdown was extended for another three weeks in mid-April, but Mr Johnson is soon expected to set out his plan to lift the stringent rules, according to media reports.

Britain, the world's second worst-hit country after the US with more than 32,000 coronavirus deaths, imposed strict stay-at-home orders in late March.

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