I originally had Neil Ferguson down as a kind of Henry Kissinger figure. The professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London seemed to have bewitched successive prime ministers, blinding them with his brilliance. Whenever a health emergency broke out, whether it was mad cow disease or avian flu, there he was, PowerPoint in hand, telling the leaders of the country what to do. And they invariably fell into line. In 2001, after the outbreak of foot and mouth, his team at Imperial advised Tony Blair’s government to adopt a strategy of pre-emptive culling, leading to the slaughter of more than six million animals. Gordon Brown consulted him about swine flu in 2009 and two months ago Boris Johnson was persuaded to put the country under lockdown after the 51-year-old boffin bamboozled him with one of his computer models.
But it turns out to be less a case of Dr Strangelove than Carry On Doctor. On Tuesday night, we discovered that the furrowed-browed scientist, who has been at the Prime Minister’s side throughout this crisis, is in fact Austin Powers in a lab coat. He’s been having an affair with a 38-year-old married woman who travels regularly across the capital from her home in south London to spend time with him. This revelation, which has to be the scoop of the year, was brought to us by the Telegraph and is the epitome of what newspapers call a ‘marmalade dropper’ — a story so astonishing it causes the typical reader to drop his toast mid-mouthful.
A good deal of the coverage has focused on Ferguson’s hypocrisy. After all, this is the man who has told 66 million Britons they must remain in their homes to protect the NHS and save lives. Under the draconian new rules imposed by the Coronavirus Act, we’re allowed to venture out only if we have a ‘reasonable excuse’ such as a medical emergency, daily exercise, essential food shopping or certain types of work. Hard to imagine an extra-marital affair falling under one of those headings. How can Professor Lockdown encourage the authorities to enforce these rules when he’s flagrantly breaking them himself?
The first tryst was recorded by the Telegraph on 30 March, less than two weeks after Ferguson tested positive for the virus. Given that his lover, Antonia Staats, lives with her husband and two children, wasn’t that a tad irresponsible? ‘I acted in the belief that I was immune,’ he told the paper. Does this mean everyone who’s had Covid-19 and recovered can ignore the rules? I doubt that will be considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ even during the winding-down phase, and it certainly isn’t at the moment.
Why is it that the most zealous advocates for reining in human behaviour, whether it’s in Prohibition-era America or the midst of a public health crisis, always get caught with their pants down? I’m reminded of something the late Christopher Hitchens said: ‘Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.’
Truth be told, though, I’m not that bothered about the double-standards. My hope is it will be an emperor’s-new-clothes moment, breaking the spell this Rasputin figure has cast over Boris and the cabinet. God knows, there’s enough evidence that his computer model, which predicted 250,000 would die if the government didn’t place the country under house arrest, is about as reliable as Paul the Octopus. Exhibit A is the team of scientists at Uppsala University who plugged Ferguson’s numbers into their computer in early April, at a time when many in Stockholm were hoping to frighten their government into imposing a lockdown. Imperial had provided the ammo: if the Swedish authorities continued to pursue its ‘reckless’ mitigation strategy, it was argued, the healthcare system would be overwhelmed 40-fold and approximately 96,000 would die of Covid-19 by the end of the year. By 1 May, the model predicted, the death toll would be 40,000. In fact, at the time of writing, Sweden’s death toll from coronavirus is 2,854 and its hospitals are nowhere near the projected collapse.
It’s time our tribal chief found a more sensible adviser. This witch doctor, like so many before him, has turned out to have feet of clay.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.