Boris Johnson has refused to sack Matt Hancock after the British health secretary apologised for breaching social distancing guidelines in a picture of him kissing an aide.
The Sun newspaper published photographs of Mr Hancock with Gina Coladangelo, a friend from his university days whom he had appointed to an advisory position in the health department last year.
“I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. 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,” Mr Hancock said.
Labour called for the health secretary's resignation, describing his position as untenable, but Downing Street said the prime minister had confidence in his minister.
“You have seen the health secretary’s statement and so I would point you to that, I don’t really have anything further to add. He accepts that he has broken the social distancing guidelines. The prime minister has accepted the health secretary’s apology and considers the matter closed,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
The spokesman said that all the correct procedures were followed when Mr Hancock appointed Ms Coladangelo to the position of non-executive director of the health department, for which she receives £15,000 (€17,500) a year. The Sun said the pictures of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo kissing were taken in a corridor outside his office on May 6th this year and claimed that they have been having an affair.
"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.
“The charge sheet against Matt Hancock includes wasting taxpayers’ money, leaving care homes exposed and now being accused of breaking his own Covid rules. His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”
At the time the picture was taken, the embrace was in clear breach of social distancing rules, which said people should stay at least two metres away from anyone outside their household or bubble. Although Mr Hancock’s apology only admitted to breaching “guidelines”, Downing Street refused to confirm that the health secretary had not broken the law, or to say whether the government had sought legal advice on the issue.
When epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, one of the government's coronavirus advisers, resigned last year after a woman he was having an affair with visited him during lockdown, Mr Hancock was among his sternest critics. He said it was impossible for Prof Ferguson to continue advising the government because social distancing rules "are there for everyone" and suggested it was a matter for the police.
"This latest episode of hypocrisy will break the trust with the British public. He was telling families not to hug loved ones, while doing whatever he liked in the workplace," Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Munira Wilson said.
“It’s clear that he does not share the public’s values. Rules for them and rules for us is no way to run a country. From the PPE scandal, the crisis in our care service and the unbelievably poor test and trace system, he has utterly failed. It is time for the health secretary to go.”