On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted calls to remove his health minister after photos emerged of him hugging and kissing an employee in his office, in what he said was a violation of coronavirus regulations.
The photos of Matt Hancock and the aide were published on the front page of the Sun newspaper last month, before the government eased regulations prohibiting personal contact with anyone outside a person’s family.
Before joining Hancock’s team, the assistant had been a friend of his. Hancock is a married man.
“I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances,” Hancock said. “I have let people down and am very sorry. I remain focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic, and would be grateful for privacy for my family on this personal matter.”
Hancock, 42, has been at the centre of the government’s campaign against the epidemic, frequently appearing on television to warn the public to obey stringent regulations and to defend his department’s response to the crisis.
According to a spokeswoman for Johnson, the prime minister accepted Hancock’s apology, has complete trust in him, and “considers the matter closed”
The opposition Labour Party urged that Johnson dismiss Hancock and investigate if he violated the ministerial code of conduct.
“This matter is definitely not closed, despite the government’s attempts to cover it up,” a Labour spokesperson said. “Matt Hancock appears to have been caught breaking the laws he created, while having a secret relationship with an aide he appointed to a taxpayer-funded job.”
Hancock has been criticised for his department’s handling of the pandemic, particularly in the early months last year when it struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients.
Hancock was found in February to have acted unlawfully by not revealing details of contracts signed during the crisis. The health ministry said it had needed to move quickly.
Hancock also said last year that it was right that a government scientist resigned after breaking COVID rules by meeting a partner.
More than half of UK adults said Hancock should resign, according to an opinion poll on Friday. Savanta ComRes found 58% of those polled thought he step down.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Charlie Irwin, a 19-year-old who lives in Kent in the south of England. The government has been “so onto us about, you know, ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and then to go and break them.”
The Sun did not disclose how it acquired the security camera photos, but it did mention a whistleblower who spoke about the relationship. Police in London stated they would not investigate Hancock because they do not examine violations of the government’s coronavirus laws retroactively.
According to the Sun, Hancock met the aide at Oxford University in the early 2000s. She is identified as a non-executive director on the health department’s website.
When asked if it was appropriate to nominate friends to government jobs, Transport Minister Grant Shapps told Sky News that “very strict rules” were in place.