A top coronavirus expert broke lockdown rules for sex. Guess who the tabloids focused on?

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Lauren Geall
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At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc all over the world, major newspapers across the UK have allocated significant space to revealing the intimate details of a woman far from the public eye. The worst part? It’s not even surprising.     

Yesterday evening, news broke that one of the country’s leading government advisors had repeatedly broken social distancing guidelines to see a woman who lived outside his household. Reading the reports, though, there was one detail in particular which drew my attention.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who resigned from his government advisory position last night (6 May), said he made an “error of judgement” in allowing the woman to visit his London home on at least two occasions.

This revelation was, of course, pretty shocking. Ferguson led the team of epidemiologists whose research led to the lockdown restrictions in the first place, and he’s repeatedly spoken out in favour of social distancing restrictions as playing a vital part in keeping coronavirus under control. For him to break those restrictions is rather hypocritical.

But at the heart of the reportage of this story, there is a glaring – although not surprising – problem: the disproportionate focus on the woman involved. 

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The woman in question – who we won’t be naming here – is not an epidemiologist, senior adviser or anything to do with the coronavirus lockdown. Despite this, her name, age, living situation, place of work and relationship status have made front page news. In some cases, there are entire articles written about her, which reveal things such as where she went to university, where she grew up and personal details about her husband.

And that’s not forgetting her photo, which is emblazoned across the front pages of multiple national newspapers. In the case of one tabloid, her picture is about four times bigger than Ferguson’s; in another, a full-length photograph of the woman is positioned alongside a small portrait of Ferguson. If you only saw the photographs, you’d suspect the woman was the professor who’d broken the rules.

Breaking lockdown for sex is definitely against the official guidelines.

We can’t negate her responsibility in disobeying rules that have been put in place to save lives and protect the NHS from needless strain at this time. However, unlike Ferguson, this woman had nothing to do with the national lockdown and social distancing measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus. So, why is she being treated like she does?

It’s not surprising to see a woman treated this way by the mainstream media, but it’s still just as disappointing. What are the chances that Ferguson’s photograph would have been plastered all over the front pages if the pair’s roles were switched? Would we care about every detail of his life? I doubt it.

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On the day when the UK’s coronavirus death toll became the worst in Europe, it’s deeply troubling to see such a focus on the private life of a woman who is being lumbered with a disproportionate amount of responsibility and shame. 

Despite the rise of the #bekind movement – the calls for people to stop digging into the private lives of others and revelling in the misfortunes of women – it seems we’ve failed to make any significant progress when it comes to shining a light on what really matters. 

This isn’t the first time the private lives of women have been unearthed for the sake of unnecessary front page gossip. From Meghan Markle’s family history to the treatment of Caroline Flack in the lead-up to her death, the deeply personal details of women have always proved valuable currency.

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At a time like this – when we’re being forced to re-evaluate what really matters – I, perhaps naively, hoped the nation’s newspapers would do better. 

Now more than ever, we need a media industry which focuses on the stories that really matter. While Ferguson’s story may have warranted coverage, it didn’t warrant a whole expose into the lives of those involved – especially at a time when there’s so much happening across the world that warrants the kind of front page coverage this story has seen.

The coronavirus stories you need to read

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting people all over the world. If you want to learn more about coronavirus, including what it’s like to work on the frontline of the crisis, check out these three stories:

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.