Updated: June 25, 2021 7:25:27 pm
Health Secretary Matt Hancock apologized for breaching pandemic rules after being pictured embracing a senior aide who he appointed to his team, but he said he is not resigning from the U.K. government.
His apology came after The Sun newspaper published two photos of Hancock and Gina Coladangelo, apparently kissing in his Whitehall offices last month.
The opposition Labour Party called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fire his top health official for breaking the government’s own coronavirus restrictions. Hancock said he will keep working to help the country recover from the pandemic.
“I accept that I breached the social-distancing guidance in these circumstances,” Hancock said in a statement released by his office. “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.”
The minister’s statement is unlikely to bring an end to the controversy. For Johnson, the risk is that Hancock’s behavior revives a broader narrative of allegations of so-called “sleaze” against the government, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals.
There is also a danger that the minister’s personal troubles will undermine his department’s efforts to tackle the pandemic. The U.K. is in a race to vaccinate the population against the fast spreading delta variant of coronavirus quickly enough to be able to lift social distancing restrictions and reopen more businesses on July 19.
Hancock has been under pressure already over his handling of the pandemic. Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings published text messages he said showed the premier regarded the minister as “hopeless” and has accused Hancock of lying and incompetence at the height of the Covid crisis last year.
Hancock and Coladangelo have been friends since their time together as students at Oxford University and are both married with children.
Coladangelo, a former director at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon and current shareholder, was appointed by Hancock as an unpaid adviser to the Department of Health last year. She was later made a non-executive director at the department, a role that pays 15,000 pounds ($21,000) a year, according to the Sun. Hancock chairs the departmental board.
At the time the photos of the couple were taken, pandemic rules were advising against meeting people from different households indoors. Labour accused Hancock of “breaking his own Covid rules” in the clinch with Coladangelo.
“If Matt Hancock has been secretly having a relationship with an adviser in his office — who he personally appointed to a taxpayer-funded role — it is a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest,” Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds said. “His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”