It seems like a lifetime ago when the Imperial College academic Neil Ferguson was caught breaking lockdown rules to meet his married lover. Since then, a whole series of mad, bad and downright nonsense regulations have come and gone. At the time though, the breach was taken very seriously by both the government and Ferguson himself, who had been the main champion of strict lockdown rules being instated in Britain.
On 5 May, Ferguson promised to stand down as a government advisor, saying he regretted ‘undermining’ the government’s harsh measures on social distancing. His decision was backed by the government. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said Ferguson had made ‘the right decision to resign’ and told Sky News, that it was ‘just not possible’ for the Professor to continue advising the government. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Boris Johnson agreed with his decision to resign from Sage, and added that Ferguson’s membership of Nervtag (the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group) had also been relinquished.
It appears though that Ferguson’s resignation from Nervtag, one of the key committees feeding advice to Sage, was rather less permanent than most people were led to believe. In fact, Ferguson appears to have been continuing to advise the government as an official member of Nervtag since June.
According to recently released Nervtag minutes, Ferguson began attending government meetings on 26 June, when he joined the group via ‘telecon’. On 10 July he attended another Nervtag discussion, before missing later meetings. On 14 August he sent his ‘apologies’ for not attending, but since then appears to have been a regular fixture at every meeting since.
The minutes also say that Ferguson took part in the latest Nervtag meeting three days ago to discuss the Covid-19 mutation spreading in the South of England. The group’s findings convinced the Prime Minister to introduce harsher restrictions at Christmas.
In sum, it appears that far from quitting following his lockdown breach, the Professor stopped his membership of Nervtag for fewer than two months, and became a regular advisor once again in August.
Mr S would not, of course, be in favour of anyone being driven out of public life for a single transgression. But it is worth noting that Professor Ferguson was happy to receive praise in May for quickly stepping down to protect the government’s credibility during lockdown. If these minutes are correct, it appears that his sacrifice was rather smaller than the public were led to believe. It also calls into question the government’s own assertions in May that Ferguson had stepped down from his Nervtag role. The Department for Health has been contacted for comment.
Ferguson himself told MPs in June that he was still a member of the SPI-M group, which advises the government on coronavirus modelling, but did not mention returning to Nervtag. Ferguson added that he was only attending other meetings on an ‘ad hoc’ basis.
Since then, those ‘ad hoc’ meetings appear to have morphed into full-time membership of another committee.
To Mr Steerpike at least, it looks very much like Neil Ferguson never stopped being a government advisor, after all…