Piers Morgan, for all his faults (and they are legion), has been excellent throughout this crisis, but I'm not going to follow him down the road of suggesting that Neil Ferguson's breach of the lockdown means that he was never really an expert and that the government shouldn't have been listening to him so much. The reality is that we should all thank God that the government were at least paying some heed to Ferguson, because he played a pivotal role in bringing them back from the 'herd immunity' brink in mid-March. He was clear-sighted about how drastic social distancing measures could save hundreds of thousands of lives, and more recently he was a strong advocate of a South Korean-style test-and-trace strategy to keep the virus suppressed even after the lockdown is eased. Heaven only knows how much worse the current catastrophe would be if the government had only had the likes of Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Graham Medley to advise them.
SAGE is such a secretive body that it's hard to guess whether the balance of power will be materially changed by Ferguson's departure, but if there's any backsliding towards tolerating a higher rate of infection, the suspicion will be that the Telegraph's scalp played a part. We can only hope that the adoption of a South Korean approach is now sufficiently 'locked in', and that a change of personnel won't make too much difference at this stage.
Because of Ferguson's association with the lockdown policies in both the UK and the US, he became a hate figure for rabid right-wingers on both sides of the Atlantic. (Do a Twitter search of his name and you'll see what I mean.) Given that the Telegraph is a right-wing rag and has published anti-lockdown commentary, it's reasonable to wonder whether they deliberately targeted Ferguson - either out of sheer revenge, or perhaps in the hope of shifting government policy in a more pro-epidemic direction. A few questions spring to mind...
* If Ferguson was under some form of surveillance in the hope of catching him out, were other government scientists being watched in the same way? For example, were herd immunity enthusiasts like Graham Medley subjected to the same monitoring? If not, why was Ferguson singled out?
* Did the surveillance of Ferguson in itself involve breaches of the lockdown? Journalists may be regarded as essential workers, but that doesn't mean that anything goes and that absolutely any sort of indulgence can be automatically justified.
* Do minor examples of personal hypocrisy on the part of government officials and advisers really warrant this scale of journalistic investment, when there are far more important things that need to be investigated - such as PPE shortages, the painfully slow progress on testing and contact tracing, and the shameful failure to protect care home residents?
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Patrick Vallance directly apologised yesterday for comments he made about "herd immunity" in March, and his failure to make clear that there was considerable uncertainty over whether people become immune after having the virus and how long any such immunity will last. I'd suggest that means we're now entitled to a similar apology from our very own Jason Leitch, who ludicrously told Channel 4 News on 16th March that "we know that if you get it, you don't appear to get it again...it appears very, very rare, if ever, that you get it twice". There was no hindsight required to know that was utter tripe when he said it - it was literally impossible to judge if immunity might wear off after six months or a year or three years when the virus had only been circulating in humans for a few short weeks.