When I first heard that Neil Ferguson, the Government’s Covid adviser, had had to resign, I thought the BBC broadcast had announced that it was because he had seen his married mother during lockdown. Aw, I thought. Filial duty. He couldn’t bear to leave his poor mother at home by herself, though what’s the big deal about her being married? Anyway. Big sympathy. Then I heard it again. He had been visited, it seems by his married lover, not his mother, when he was busy lecturing the rest of the country about the importance of self isolation.
In a nanosecond, big sympathy turned into a mixture of censure and pure cheer. Old fashioned British journalistic values triumph again. This was an actual story, a story that would have been cherished in the glory days of Fleet Street. Notionally, the only thing that bothered anybody was that the professor, Matt Hancock’s scientific alter ego – notwithstanding his iffy record in previous pandemics – had failed to apply to himself the social distancing rules he advocated for others. So this was hypocrisy, like the Scottish chief medical officer who was given a police warning for visiting her holiday home in Fife.
But actually the thing that gave the Ferguson affair its uplifting frisson was the human aspect – the 'trysts' as the Daily Mail put it – and there is no other context in which you use that excellent word than this one. And undeniably it helped that Antonia Staats is blonde, wears red lipstick, at 38 is significantly younger than the prof and is married. Mind you, as the Mail – which has really run with this one – pointed out, Antonia and her husband Chris appear to have an open marriage, and it seems from a rather ill-advised comment she made that the lockdown was putting relationships under strain. Well, presumably nothing like as much as having it on national news.
But no matter. In this case prurience had a cast iron alibi, our very real concern that people may have been led astray by the prof’s example – in respect of the social distancing, you understand. So it’s fair game to mention this particular human triangle, but only in order to highlight how very important it is for people who are not actually cohabiting to remain two metres apart at all times. Though I suppose it’s notionally possible he and his activist friend did keep socially distanced when they were indoors; who’s to say? As Sir Charles Wheeler, the Tory bigwig, points out compassionately, it is very difficult for people attached to each other to remain apart for long periods. Matt Hancock is another matter; he turned on his former adviser with a savagery that wasn’t at all tempered by their having worked together.
In any event, professor Ferguson has gladdened the nation a good deal more by his discomfiture than he ever did as a government adviser. He has provided an object lesson in the importance of maintaining social distancing guidelines; he has cheered up the censorious as a hypocrite with double standards; and he has delighted those of us who feared we’d never again have a decent story involving the words 'married lover' or 'mistress' or 'open marriage' in the broadsheets. Old fashioned values triumph again.