Matt Hancock says he backs any police action against Neil Ferguson | World news

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.

The scandal was revealed on Tuesday, when figures showed the UK’s official death toll from coronavirus had exceeded that of Italy to become the highest in Europe.

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.

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014/15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

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.”

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