UK health secretary under fire over affair with aide

LONDON — Matt Hancock, the U.K. health secretary, apologized for breaking coronavirus measures but signaled that he would not resign after pictures of him emerged kissing an aide he hired to work in his department.

The photographs were published by The Sun on Thursday night, showing Hancock with Gina Coladangelo, who was recruited last year as a non-executive director at the Department of Health.

The images date from May 6, almost two weeks before hugging between households was officially allowed under the relaxation of coronavirus rules. 

Hancock said on Friday: “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.”

The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats both called earlier for him to be fired, with Labour’s chairman Anneliese Dodds saying: “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.

“His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”

Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard said: “There must be an investigation into this appointment and a full public inquiry into the Tory cronyism scandal engulfing Westminster, which is out of control.”

Cath Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said: “The U.K.’s ministerial code does not ban relationships with aides … But in the U.K., ministers are responsible for the conduct of special advisers working for them. This suggests a potential conflict of interest if they are in a relationship.”

In November 2020, the Sunday Times reported that Hancock failed to declare that he appointed Coladangelo as an unpaid adviser and later gave her a £15,000-a-year role on the board of his department.

Coladangelo, who has been friends with Hancock since university, is a director at Luther Pendragon, a lobbying firm based in central London, and communications director at Oliver Bonas, a fashion and lifestyle store founded by her husband.

Neil Ferguson, one of the U.K.’s leading coronavirus experts, was forced to resign his advisory role to the government last year after he breached lockdown rules to see a woman he was in a relationship with. At the time, Hancock said he would back any action by the police over Ferguson’s conduct.

Hancock has served as health secretary since 2018, one of only a few ministers to serve continuously in the same role over that period. 

He recently withstood a slew of allegations by his former colleague, Dominic Cummings, who accused him of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” in the early days of the pandemic.

The prime minister’s spokesman said Boris Johnson had full confidence in the health minister in response to the claims made by Cummings last month.

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