British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was under mounting pressure on Saturday to fire his health secretary after the admission that he broke COVID-19 guidelines by kissing an employee sparked accusations of blatant hypocrisy.
Matt Hancock, 42, has been at the centre of the government’s fight against the pandemic, routinely telling people to follow strict rules and even welcoming the resignation last year of a senior scientist who broke restrictions in a similar manner.
Hancock apologised on Friday after The Sun newspaper showed him kissing and embracing a senior 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.
“I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances,” he said. “I have let people down and am very sorry.”
Johnson said on Friday he considered the matter to now be closed.
But Britain’s leading newspapers, which all splashed the story on their front pages, said Hancock had lost any moral authority and must go.
The opposition Labour Party questioned whether he had also breached the ministerial code by hiring a woman who had been a friend for years – reigniting charges of cronyism that have previously hit Johnson’s Conservative government.
“Mr Hancock cannot now hope to put on a straight face and tell us how to behave and seriously expect us to listen,” The Sun said in its leader column. “There is the rank stench of hypocrisy.”
The case had echoes of an incident last year when Johnson’s then most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, also broke the rules at the height of the pandemic, sparking fury across the country and accusations that Johnson’s government believed itself to be above the law.
UK’s Johnson stands by health secretary who broke COVID rules kissing aide
The Sun newspaper, which published the photographs of Matt Hancock and the aide on its front page, said the images were takenlast month, before the government lifted rules banning intimate contact with people outside a person’s household.
The aide had been a friend of Hancock’s before she was appointed to his staff. Hancock is married.
“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 fight against the pandemic, often appearing on television to tell the public to follow strict rules and to defend his department against criticism of its response to the crisis.
A spokesperson for Johnson said the prime minister had accepted Hancock’s apology, had full confidence in him, and “considers the matter closed”.
The opposition Labour Party called on Johnson to fire Hancock and demanded an investigation into whether he breached the code governing the behaviour of ministers.
“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 say how it obtained the security camera images, but it cited a whistleblower as commenting on the relationship. London’s police said they would not investigate Hancock because they do not retrospectively investigate breaches of the government’s coronavirus regulations.
The Sun said Hancock met the aide at Oxford University in the early 2000s. She is listed on the health department’s website as a non-executive director.
Asked about the appropriateness of appointing friends to positions in government, Transport Minister Grant Shapps told Sky News that “very strict rules” were in place.
Johnson, prime minister since 2019, has refused on a number of occasions to sack ministers, including his interior minister who was found to have broken rules by shouting and swearing at staff, prompting the official ethics adviser to resign instead.
The prime minister has himself been criticised in an official report over his personal finances.
And the country’s spending watchdog has criticised the government for the way it awarded billions of pounds of contracts at the height of the pandemic, after some multi-million pound contracts went to companies with links to ministers, lawmakers and officials.
The health ministry has said it needed to move quickly.
The Times newspaper said Johnson’s approach to criticism and wrongdoing put public support at risk.
“The danger is that this cavalier approach to rules is becoming corrosive to that most precious commodity for any government — public trust,” it said.
Hancock, who is married, has said he is now focused on getting the country out of the pandemic and has asked for privacy for his family.