'I've never met Boris Johnson', reveals architect of UK's coronavirus lockdown Professor Neil Ferguson

Ellen Manning
·3 min read
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson speaks at a news conference in London, Britain January 22, 2020, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said he never actually met Boris Johnson. (Reuters)

The leading epidemiologist whose controversial report predicted a potential coronavirus death toll of more than 500,000 in the UK never actually met Boris Johnson, he has revealed.

Professor Neil Ferguson, dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because his report prompted the government’s decision to put a lockdown in place in March, said he never had a one-on-one with the Prime Minister because that is “not the way science advice works in the UK”.

In a wide-ranging interview in the New Statesman, Prof Ferguson said he thought the UK government had a “more nuanced and detailed understanding of what we knew and what we didn’t about the virus than any other government”, but was too slow in dealing with it.

The leading scientist previously said the coronavirus death toll 'would have been at least 50% lower' if lockdown had started a week earlier.

Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty and UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance arrive on Downing Street after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care as his coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms worsened and Secretary of State for Foreign affairs Dominic Raab was asked to deputise, London, Britain, April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Prof Ferguson said any scientific advice goes through Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty and UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. (Reuters)

In his latest interview, he told the New Statesman: “I never met Johnson, I never had one-on-ones, it’s not the way science advice works in the UK.

“It all goes through Sage [the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and then the scientific consensus is communicated to Johnson by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance.”

He said he did have some conversations “on the margins of Sage meetings with No 10 special advisers”, but added: “that was the closest I got to any politician”.

His comments give an interesting insight into the process by which key decisions have been made throughout the crisis at the heart of government.

In May, four months into the outbreak, Johnson admitted he didn’t read the scientific papers presented by Sage, only a digest provided to him by his advisers.

The government has also admitted Johnson did not attend five Cobra meetings in the run-up to the outbreak arriving in the UK.

The epidemiologist, who resigned from his post on Sage after flouting lockdown rules by receiving visits from his lover at his home, said he didn’t know what the “perfect” system was but compared the way UK scientific advice works to France, after his own report was reportedly shown directly to French President Emmanuel Macron by a colleague in what was a key factor in him deciding to lock the country down.

“In other European countries, like France, a small group of scientists – experts on the disease - directly talked to the politicians,” he said, adding that the structure in the UK prevented “charismatic individuals” unduly influencing policy.

He questioned whether having “a very nuanced, reflective, risk-adverse scientific advisory system” in relation to policy resulted in an agile-enough system that could deal adequately with something like the coronavirus pandemic.

In his interview, which comes as tighter restrictions were imposed on parts of the north west of England amid concerns that infection rates are rising, Prof Ferguson warned that the UK is still in the “early stages” of the pandemic and that the UK is unlikely to return to normal for the forseeable future.

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