Professor Neil Ferguson is a regular guest on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. One such appearance was on March 30. It was the 7.50am slot, to be precise, when Prof Ferguson, not surprisingly, repeated the Government’s ‘stay-at-home’ message.
How ironic – to put it mildly – this particular soundbite, on that particular morning, seems with hindsight.
What no one realised at the time was that Prof Ferguson, whose coronavirus research prompted the lockdown, was not alone as he was being interviewed from his home on Today; he was entertaining a guest who was, how shall we say, not a ‘member of his household’.
The guest in fact was his girlfriend, Antonia Staats. She is 38 and married. He is 51 and understood to be separated from his wife. Might Miss Staats have even been in Prof Ferguson’s bed at the time he went on air? It was early morning, after all.
Pictured: Antonia Staats, 38, works for Avaaz, a global online activist network. She and her band of Left-wing colleagues had their own message for the general public: ‘Stay at home’
Professor Neil Ferguson (pictured) has now admitted he made a grave ‘error of judgment’ and resigned from his Sage role
The affair, in other words, has not only opened up Prof Ferguson to accusations of hypocrisy but also ridicule.
‘Lockdown, Pants Down, Steps Down,’ is how the Guido Fawkes website headlined the revelation which resulted in Prof Ferguson’s immediate resignation as a Downing Street adviser.
He was a key member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which has been informing the Government’s response to the pandemic, earning him the nickname ‘Professor Lockdown,’ a rather unfortunate sobriquet in the circumstances.
But he has never fitted the popular stereotype of a bookish academic. He is a fitness fanatic who normally wears jeans, T-shirt and jacket. And Miss Staats, a Left-wing campaigner and a mother of two, is certainly not the typical ‘other woman’. She is believed to be in an open marriage.
The two met about 18 months ago through the online dating site OkCupid. Perhaps we should not be too surprised given Prof Ferguson’s background. The data-driven matchmaking app – created by four Harvard maths students – uses scientific modelling to work ‘algorithm magic’ to find a ‘mathematical soulmate’.
Few will see their relationship in such romantic terms, however, given the scandal surrounding their ‘illegal’ trysts.
Prof Ferguson is understood to be living apart from his wife Kim, 54. They married in 2004 and have a teenage son.
His estranged wife is the daughter of a respected Oxford deputy headmaster and lives in a £1million, end of crescent, terrace townhouse (jointly owned with Prof Ferguson) in the fashionable Jericho district of Oxford, an area beloved of the town’s liberal elite.
She describes herself as a ‘sustainability educator’ and is the director of several companies devoted to green issues – possibly the only things she has in common with her husband’s younger lover.
Antonia Staats grew up in Isny, southern Germany, went to university in Berlin and came to London to obtain a masters in Asian politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where her husband works.
He is a Cambridge graduate and senior lecturer in Arabic Linguistics at SOAS and has met Prof Ferguson; they share an interest in data science.
Pictured: Antonia Staats joins other campaigners from Avaaz in holding a photo-call outside Parliament with a man dressed as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pushing the plunger on a “No-Deal Bomb”
Pictured: Chris Lucas, husband of Antonia Staats, who is Prof Neil Ferguson’s married mistress
Miss Staats herself works for Avaaz, a global online activist network. Avaaz – meaning ‘voice’ in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages – says its mission is to ‘close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want’.
Two weeks before the UK was plunged into lockdown, she and her band of Left-wing colleagues had their own message for the general public: ‘Stay at home’. Everyone, the group declared, should ‘avoid unnecessary close contact and stay at home when we can.’ More than half-a-million signed up to the online pledge.
The revelations about Avaaz makes news of Miss Staats’s secret assignations with Prof Ferguson all the more incredible.
Before being deleted, her Facebook account highlighted some of her other activities with Avaaz.
In 2016, she took to social media in search of young Londoners who were unhappy with the referendum result as part of her ‘Pleasedontgouk’ campaign.
The following year she was pictured protesting outside Parliament against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which she accused of ‘pulling the strings’ of Theresa May’s government.
Even though German-born Miss Staats was ineligible to vote in December’s general election, she was busy encouraging others to vote tactically.
Avaaz has also fought vociferously for greater protection for ‘Press abuse victims’ and wanted the second part of the Leveson inquiry – intended to examine relationships between journalists and the police – to go ahead.
Oh, yes, and Miss Staats is also a climate change campaigner. Curiously, though – or predicatably some might say – her Facebook posts reveal she is happy to jet back to Germany for ski holidays.
She spoke about her middle class life with an au pair and a cleaner and her relationship with her husband on the ‘Life in Pandemic’ podcast which was ‘broadcast’ on March 31, the day after she stayed at Prof Ferguson’s London home when he appeared on the Today programme.
‘Chris [her husband] has it incredibly easy in the sense that we already had a set-up working from home,’ she said. ‘You know we have little other stuff to worry about, right? You know we’re not renting. Even with the reduced schedule, I still get paid the same amount as when I was working kind of proper full days.
‘And I didn’t have to scramble to find remote access to what I need for work, or, you know, monitors, computers, whatever I need at home, we had all of that and even so, it’s a strain.’
She continued: ‘I think strained has sounded too negative, but it’s an interesting relationship challenge. I mean, for, you know, Chris and my relationship… because we spend a lot more time and quite different time with each other all of a sudden, right?’
It must be especially challenging – or strained – of course, if you have an ‘open marriage’ and you want to spend time with someone else.
Pictured: The south London home of Antonia Staats
One wonders what Prof Ferguson’s family, or rather his parents, make of his lover’s supposedly open marriage? They are pillars of the community back in his native Wales. His father John, 73, is a member of the local parish council while his mother Kathy, 74, was a librarian who later became an Anglican priest, for the parish of Bro Arwystli in the Diocese of Bangor.
‘We’re very proud of him [Prof Ferguson],’ she told the local paper after their son became one of the most famous scientists in the country. ‘We worry about him but we’re very proud of him.’ How many times has Miss Staats visited Prof Ferguson during the lockdown? At least twice, that we know of. Millions of couples kept apart during the past weeks will take a dim view of their potentially dangerous liaisons. She travelled across London – Miss Staats is understood to live in south London, Professor Ferguson in west London – to see him. The first of Miss Staats’ visits, on Monday March 30, coincided with a public warning by Prof Ferguson that the week-old lockdown would have to remain until June.
A few days earlier, he announced, again on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – that he was self-isolating in his flat.
‘I’ve been in so many meetings in the last few weeks,’ he told listeners. ‘We think there’s infectiousness for about a day before symptoms – and I was actually in a Downing Street Press conference. The more serious point it kind of highlights the need for the response which has been enacted.’
Miss Staats made a similar revelation – about her husband – at around the same time on the ‘Life in Pandemic’ podcast.
‘Chris has not been feeling great and thinks he’s got it,’ she said. ‘But, you know, we can’t know for sure. So what now? Do we assume he’s had it? And if so, does that change how comfortable we would feel going to see his parents or not? But until there is a test that would be widely available to help establish whether you have indeed gone through it or not, you just don’t know.’
Nevertheless friends, it has been reported, say that she was in Prof Ferguson’s flat on the morning of his 7.50am slot on Today.
On April 8, Miss Staats was at his flat again. The contradiction of what he says in public and what he does in private was highlighted two days later on April 10, again on Today. ‘We clearly don’t want these measures to continue any longer than is absolutely necessary,’ he said. ‘I mean the economic costs, social costs, personal and health costs are huge, but we don’t want to set out polices which maintain the suppression of transmission of this virus.’
Prof Ferguson has now admitted he made a grave ‘error of judgment’ and resigned from his Sage role. He said he ‘acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus and completely isolating myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms.’
His mother-in-law, Eileen Pirie, 79, said: ‘I think it is absolutely disgraceful the things that are being said about him. All of this derision because he invited a woman into his flat? Is this really such a big deal? Neil has organised, not single-handedly but to a great degree, our getting out of this huge and awful situation that we are all in.’
Miss Staats has reportedly told friends she did not believe their actions in meeting to be hypocritical as she considers the households to be one.
Few people, one suspects, would agree with her.