Should Professor Neil Ferguson have resigned?

News broke yesterday that one of the leading experts advising the government on Coronavirus response has stepped back from involvement in SAGE, the government’s advisory body. Why? Was it that his expertise had been found wanting? No, whilst not everyone is happy with his models, this was not the reason.[1] Was he resigning in protest maybe at the Government’s failure to follow his advise?  No, there seems to be no dispute between him and them. So why did he resign. Well whilst he has been telling us all that we should strictly follow the lockdown, it turns out that he has been sneaking out to continue an affair.[2]

There are a number of observations we can make about this. First of all, that our society has little problem with affairs these days, so long as they don’t break lockdown.  Secondly, we see here the temptation once again, well ingrained into human nature for each of us to believe we are the exception with special exemptions, even from our own advice.  However, do those things mean he should have resigned.

I want to suggest that if a government minister was caught breaking the lockdown rules then that would be a cause for them to tender their resignation. This is because they have a duty to lead by example as well as word and legislation. If Matt Hancock was caught at a secret pub lock in having a pint with some neighbours then he would lose all moral authority as Health Secretary and have to go. Who would listen to him then?

However Prof Ferguson is there for his technical expertise. He is there to advise not to lead. Now, it is frustrating isn’t it when your doctor tells you that you need to exercise more, eat healthily, stop smoking and get a good work life balance when you suspect their own health habits are not great? But it does not change the validity of their advice. Further, I wonder if the scientists have been too readily pushed forward into places where they are seen to be lecturing on personal behaviour. It is best when they are not the news story and are quietly giving the advice. The point is that his advice remains as valid as before and if it was essential to the fight against coronavirus yesterday then it remains so today.

So, I hope that the professor takes lockdown advice seriously himself but I do not think he should have resigned.


[1] See https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/six-questions-that-neil-ferguson-should-be-asked nb I am not convinced particularly. The article does not seem to allow for things like best-possible- worst ranges and confidence intervals. Nor whether the cited examples represent a small or large sample of his work.

[2] It is worth remembering that the Scottish Chief Medical Officer also had to resign for visiting a second home. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/05/scotland-chief-medical-officer-seen-flouting-lockdown-advice-catherine-calderwood . Some reports suggested this was somehow embarrassing to the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon but I’m not sure how.

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