The UK health secretary has said he would back the police in any action they wish to take over Prof Neil Ferguson breaking social distancing rules by having a woman visit him at his home.
Ferguson, an epidemiologist who has helped shape the government’s response to coronavirus and who advocated the lockdown, made the right decision to resign, Matt Hancock told Sky News.
Hancock said: “I back the police here. They will take their decisions independently from ministers, that’s quite right, it’s always been like that.
“Even though I have got a clear answer to what I think, as a minister the way we run the police is that they make decisions like this. So I give them their space to make that decision, but I think he took the right decision to resign.”
Ferguson, who works with an Imperial College London team whose modelling influenced the government’s decision to move to a lockdown, resigned after the Telegraph revealed that Antonia Staats had crossed London from her family home to visit him on at least two occasions, on 30 March and 8 April, since lockdown measures were imposed.
Hancock said social distancing rules were very important and everyone should follow them. He said he had supported the Scottish police warning to Dr Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish chief medical officer who visited her second home during lockdown.
He described Ferguson’s decision to flout lockdown rules as “extraordinary” and one that had left him “speechless”.
Asked whether he was speechless by presenter Kay Burley, he said: “I am.”
“Prof Ferguson is a very, very eminent and impressive scientist and the science he’s done has been an important part of what we’ve listened to, and I think he took the right decision to resign,” Hancock added.
He said he would not have fought for Ferguson to keep his job.
Earlier another senior minister urged people to stick unequivocally to the coronavirus lockdown.
James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said Ferguson had made an “error of judgment” and was right to resign. He stressed that the government’s physical distancing guidelines must be followed by law and were “there to protect us all”.
He said Ferguson’s resignation had been “an appropriate course” because other people had tried so hard to stick to the lockdown, even though it had been hard not to see loved ones.
In a round of broadcast interviews, Brokenshire stressed it was still important to follow the lockdown rules before Thursday’s review of whether they should be extended, and any decision to ease them would be “careful, cautious and thoughtful”.
Pressed on why the outcome has been so bad in the UK, Brokenshire gave the clearest acknowledgment yet that the government accepted it had made errors in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
He told Sky News: “There is an acknowledgement mistakes have been made – no government is going to get everything right. But we will have plenty of time for searching questions and to reflect on the actions that were taken.”
Later, he hinted at the inevitability of a public inquiry, saying there would be a “firm and clear opportunity to look at those issues”.
He said Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, had already acknowledged that testing should have been increased sooner.
However, the minister appeared to suggest testing levels had been low because of “capacity constraints”, while at the time politicians and scientists were saying a widespread testing regime was not necessary because the point had passed for trying to contain and suppress the virus.
He said: “Would there have been benefit in having that extra capacity, as Patrick Vallance highlighted in his evidence yesterday? Yes.
“The challenge that we had was that we have some fantastic laboratories, some fantastic expertise, but it has been the capacity restraints that we have had, and therefore that has posed challenges, but also that has now been ramped up to go from 2,000 tests [per day] in February to 120,000 at the end of April.”