LONDON — After a newspaper published photos of him hugging a woman with whom he reportedly had an affair, Britain’s health minister apologised on Friday for breaking national coronavirus rules.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has spearheaded the country’s response to the epidemic, is the latest in a long line of British officials to be accused of violating limitations put on the general public to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
The married Hancock and a top assistant kissed in an office at the Department of Health, according to the tabloid Sun newspaper. The pictures were shot on May 6 — 11 days before lockdown restrictions were relaxed to allow embraces and physical contact with individuals outside one’s own home, according to the report.
“I acknowledge that I broke the social distance advice in these circumstances,” Hancock said in a statement.
“I am really sorry for disappointing people,” he stated. “I am committed to helping the country recover from this pandemic, and I would like privacy for my family in this personal matter.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended Hancock, but the Labour Party, the major opposition, said he should be dismissed for violating social distancing and maybe government employment standards.
“It is a flagrant misuse of power and a clear conflict of interest if Matt Hancock has been covertly having a relationship with an adviser in his office – someone he personally recruited to a taxpayer-funded role,” Labour chairperson Anneliese Dodds said.
“His situation is terribly precarious. Boris Johnson needs to fire him.”
Jamie Davies, a spokesperson for Johnson, said the prime minister had complete faith in Hancock.
He stated, “The prime minister has accepted the health secretary’s apologies and considers the situation closely.” “He and the rest of the administration are committed to battling the pandemic.”
“The appointment followed all of the necessary procedures,” Davies added. Last year, the assistant worked as an unpaid consultant for the Department of Health, and this year she was promoted to non-executive director, a position that pays around 15,000 pounds ($21,000) per year.
Critics have dubbed Johnson’s Conservative government a “theocracy” for recruiting special advisors and contractors from outside the civil service without the usual standards of vetting.
Hancock’s department has been accused of flouting procurement laws in order to give lucrative contracts for safety gear and other medical necessities to personal relations. Hancock has stated that he was motivated by the necessity to acquire critical supplies rapidly during the epidemic.
Hancock has been under fire for weeks after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former senior assistant, accused him of botching the government’s response to the epidemic. Last month, Cummings, who is now a vocal opponent of the government he formerly served, told legislators that Hancock “should have been dismissed” for alleged falsehoods and mistakes. Johnson allegedly sent a WhatsApp message to Hancock, calling him “completely (expletive) useless.”
When Cummings travelled 250 miles (400 kilometres) across England to his parent’s house during the spring 2020 lockdown, he was accused of violating the rules and undercutting the government’s “stay home” message. Cummings resigned his position in November during a power struggle in the prime minister’s office, despite Johnson’s refusal to dismiss him.