British health minister 'very sorry' after kiss breaches Covid-19 guidelines

Matt Hancock (right) walks with Gina Coladangelo as they leave the BBC in central London, on June 6, 2021, PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - British Health Secretary Matt Hancock apologised on Friday (June 25) for breaching social distancing guidelines after pictures appeared of him embracing his top aide, and the Prime Minister said he believed the matter was now closed.

Photographs published on the front page of the Sun showed Mr Hancock kissing the woman - a friend hired for a taxpayer-funded role - in his office.

"I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances," Mr 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."

A spokesman for Mr Boris Johnson said the Prime Minister had accepted Mr Hancock's apology and had full confidence in him.

"(He) considers the matter closed," he said.

The opposition Labour Party has called on Mr Johnson to sack Mr Hancock.

"This matter is definitely not closed despite the government's attempts to cover it up," a spokesman 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."

Mr Hancock, 42, has been at the centre of the government's fight against the coronavirus 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.

The photographs raised more questions about Mr Hancock's judgment, both in appointing a friend to a taxpayer-funded role and in breaking guidance imposed on millions of people by Mr Johnson's government.

Under fire for his handling of the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Hancock was found in February to have acted unlawfully by not revealing details of contracts signed during the health crisis.

Mr Hancock also said last year that it was right that a government scientist resigned after he broke Covid-19 rules by meeting a partner.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid said the pictures of Mr Hancock, who is married, and the aide were taken in his department last month.

The popular daily newspaper did not say how it obtained the security camera images, but it cited a whistle-blower as commenting on the relationship.

The Sun said Mr 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.

Mr Hancock has been criticised for his department's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in the early months when it struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating Covid-19 patients.

Asked about the appropriateness of appointing friends to positions in government, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps told Sky News that "very strict rules were in place".

"In terms of the rules, anyone who has been appointed has to go through an incredibly vigorous process in government," Mr Shapps said.

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