British Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned on Saturday after being discovered kissing and hugging an assistant in his office, enraging colleagues and the public who had been living in lockdown.
In the latest controversy to rattle a government that has overseen one of the pandemic’s highest official death counts, Hancock wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to quit, claiming he had let people down.
An increasing number of his fellow Conservative lawmakers had privately called for him to go after the Sun newspaper published photos on Friday of the married minister embracing a woman whom he had appointed to a taxpayer-funded role to scrutinise his department.
“Those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that’s why I’ve got to resign,” the 42-year-old said in a video on Twitter.
Hancock had been at the centre of the government’s fight against the pandemic, routinely appearing on television to tell people to follow strict rules and to defend his department against criticism of its response to the crisis.
Sajid Javid, a former finance minister with extensive political experience but novice to health, will take his position. When Javid lost a power struggle with Johnson’s then-most senior supporter, Dominic Cummings, he was driven out of the Treasury in early 2020.
He will be in charge of assisting the state-run health service in its recovery from the epidemic and dealing with any subsequent infection waves. In the recent month, the number of reported cases has begun to climb.
Hancock’s resignation is also an embarrassment for Johnson, who stated on Friday that he had accepted Hancock’s apologies and considered the situation resolved.
On Saturday, he expressed regret at receiving the resignation.
“You should be immensely proud of your service,” he wrote in reply to Hancock. “I am grateful for your support and believe that your contribution to public service is far from over.”
The Sun had shown Hancock kissing the aide in his office last month, at a time when it was against the rules for people to have intimate contact with a person outside their household.
Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock attends a press briefing at Downing Street, in London, Britain February 1, 2021. Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool via REUTERS
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Conservative lawmakers said many of them had told the party they could no longer support him.
The opposition Labour Party had also questioned whether Hancock had broken the ministerial code: the woman, a long-time friend, was appointed as a non-executive director to scrutinise the running of his department.
Media reports said on Saturday she had now quit.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter that Hancock was right to resign, but added: “Boris Johnson should have sacked him.”
With 128,000 deaths and one of the deepest economic contractions on record, Britain has been convulsed by the pandemic and Hancock had been heavily criticised. In the early months his department struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating patients.
However, the government has been boosted by a rapid rollout of vaccines, with 84% of adults having had one dose and 61% both, well ahead of most countries.
While cases have started to rise – up 18,000 on Saturday – vaccines appear to have weakened the link between infections and deaths and most restrictions could be dropped by July 19.
Despite the improving situation, the revelations around Hancock had sparked accusations of hypocrisy. They also reignited the charge that Johnson’s government is beset by cronyism.
Hancock had last year welcomed the resignation of a senior scientist who broke restrictions in a similar manner. He had also been faulted for awarding COVID contracts to companies with close ties to government. He had said there was a need to act fast.
His situation was similarly reminiscent of an event last year in which Cummings violated lockdown restrictions. Johnson’s decision to keep him provoked outrage across the country and harmed the government’s reputation.
On that day, ministers and parliamentarians joined together to express their support for Cummings. On the other hand, few, if any, supported Hancock on Saturday.
According to a Downing Street insider, Hancock was not forced to quit. In his letter to Johnson, he stated that he wanted to apologise to his family and spend time with his children.