6th May 2020
Bob Ward is policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics
The media vilification of the government adviser is about far more than social distancing
The newspaper frenzy over Prof Neil Ferguson’s love life is just the latest example of a scientist who has been targeted for confronting parts of Britain’s political-media complex with evidence that it finds too difficult to accept.
There is no doubt that Ferguson, who sat on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) before his resignation, was wrong to ignore the government’s social distancing rules. He has admitted as much, even if he did believe that he was at low risk of spreading the Sars-Cov-2 virus because he had already recovered from Covid-19.
But today’s lurid front-page headlines follow a campaign to discredit him by those ideologically opposed to government interventions, and who have used such tactics against scientists in other fields, particularly climate change.
It is a further sign that some media commentators and politicians favour a version of Britain in which politicians and newspaper editors dictate the public’s understanding of biology and physics.
Ferguson has been under attack ever since his research team’s modelling suggested in mid-March that hundreds of thousands of deaths in the UK from Covid-19 were possible if stronger efforts were not made to curb the growing epidemic.
Within a week, the prime minister announced the current lockdown measures. The move was perceived as a U-turn because the government’s chief scientific adviser had days earlier suggested that allowing widespread infection might be an option to achieve “herd immunity” across the country.
Ferguson’s contribution was initially praised, but it was not long before his reputation was under assault from parts of the media traditionally sceptical of a so-called “nanny state”.
On 28 March, the Daily Telegraph published an article alleging that “the scientist whose calculations about the potentially devastating impact of the coronavirus directly led to the countrywide lockdown has been criticised in the past for flawed research”.
The story relied on the views of a handful of critics of how Ferguson’s models were used by the then Labour government to tackle the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The article failed to mention that Ferguson received an OBE in recognition for his important role in the crisis, or that he was afterwards elected a fellow of the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences.