Johnson Stands by Hancock After Minister Breaks U.K. Covid Rules

U.K. Premier Boris Johnson is standing by Health Secretary Matt Hancock after the Cabinet minister was pictured embracing a senior aide he appointed to his team.

Hancock apologized for breaking Covid rules after The Sun newspaper published two photos of him and Gina Coladangelo apparently kissing in his Whitehall offices last month. He said he’s not resigning from the U.K. government.

The minister’s apology is unlikely to bring an end to the controversy. For Johnson, the risk is that Hancock’s behavior revives allegations of “sleaze” -- British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals -- against his Conservatives.

Nevertheless, Johnson resisted calls by the opposition Labour Party for Hancock to be fired. “The prime minister has accepted the health secretary’s apology and considers the matter closed,” Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters on Friday. Johnson has full confidence in Hancock, he said.

Hancock said in a statement that he remains focused on tackling the pandemic.

“I accept that I breached the social-distancing guidance in these circumstances,” said Hancock, 42. “I have let people down and am very sorry.”

He went on to request “privacy for my family on this personal matter.”

Undermining

The fallout may also undermine the health 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 curbs and reopen more businesses on July 19.

Hancock, who ran against Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019, has been under pressure over his handling of the crisis.

Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, earlier this month 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 outbreak last year.

Hancock defended his response to the pandemic in a parliamentary hearing this month, saying he acted with “honesty and integrity” throughout the crisis.

Cummings

On Friday, Cummings published further correspondence, including a note he’d copied to Johnson in April 2020, outlining concerns about the U.K. test-and-trace system and demanding officials come up with a “real plan.”

Cummings said Johnson had replied that his email was “bang on” and that “the whole track and trace thing feels like whistling in the dark.” Johnson went on to lament about “apps that don’t yet work” and “above all no idea how to get new cases down to a manageable level or how long it will take.”

The premier suggested the U.K. may secure the “double distinction” of having the most deaths in Europe and the biggest economic hit from the pandemic -- two outcomes which have largely since materialized.

Hancock now faces accusations of hypocrisy over his past criticism of a scientific adviser, who quit a government panel after he was found to have broken lockdown rules last year. “I think he did the right decision, to resign that is,” Hancock told Sky News at the time.

‘Spineless’

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 the laws he created” in the clinch with Coladangelo, and accused Johnson of being “spineless” in choosing not to fire him.

“This matter is definitely not closed, despite the government’s attempts to cover it up,” a Labour spokesperson said.

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