Hancock Out in Uproar, Johnson Names Javid New Health Chief

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved to re-establish his government’s authority after the health secretary resigned for breaking his own pandemic rules.

Matt Hancock quit late Saturday after he was caught embracing a senior aide in his office, in breach of the social distancing guidelines he helped to create. The episode rebounded immediately on Johnson, who had initially fought to keep Hancock in his job and then faced criticism for being too weak to fire the minister.

Two hours after Hancock resigned, the premier tried to put an end to the controversy by replacing him with Sajid Javid, a former chancellor of the exchequer. That choice is also potentially dangerous: Javid himself resigned during a face-to-face argument with Johnson after a cabinet reshuffle went wrong in February 2020.

Since then, though, Javid, 51, has been loyal in the ranks and Johnson has now rewarded him with a return to the cabinet.

“I want our country to get out of this pandemic and that will be my most immediate priority,” Javid said in an emailed statement.

The Hancock episode was a further blow to the reputation of Johnson’s government, after a succession of embarrassing controversies in recent months.

“There’s no doubt people have been angry and frustrated,” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said on Sky News on Sunday. “Matt has made the right decision.”

Hancock’s resignation came after The Sun newspaper published photos and a video of him and Gina Coladangelo, whom he’d appointed to his team, apparently kissing in his government offices last month. Hancock initially tried to keep his job, and Johnson backed him, saying on Friday that the matter was closed.

Tory Pressure

But pressure mounted after senior officials in Johnson’s Conservative Party said the minister’s behavior was beyond the pale, with one highlighting the hypocrisy of Hancock flouting the very rules that he helped create. Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told Times Radio that Hancock’s conduct was also on the radar of potential voters in next week’s by-election in Batley and Spen.

“Those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that’s why I’ve got to resign,” Hancock, 42, said in a social media video.

Coladangelo is also leaving her role in the health department, a person familiar with the matter said. Lewis said the Department of Health is investigating how the video footage was obtained by The Sun.

Hancock’s departure is a blow for Johnson’s administration as it battles to contain a fresh surge in coronavirus cases that has already delayed the lifting of pandemic regulations.

The latest official figures show new coronavirus cases in the U.K. have climbed to their highest level since early February, with 18,270 new infections reported Saturday. So far other measures, like hospitalizations, haven’t risen much.

The Hancock controversy also revived the focus of allegations of Tory “sleaze” -- a British media shorthand for dubious actions ranging from corruption to secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals.

‘Immensely Proud’

In his resignation letter, Hancock said he owed it to all the health workers, volunteers and military personnel who had worked on the U.K.’s pandemic response to resign. He did not want his private life to “distract” from the need to focus on beating the pandemic, he said.

Hancock also publicly apologized to his family. “I want to reiterate my apology for breaking the guidance, and apologise to my family and loved ones for putting them through this,” he wrote. “I also need to be with my children at this time.”

In his reply to Hancock’s letter, Johnson praised his minister’s “abundant energy, intelligence and determination” and said he was “sorry” to lose him. Johnson also hinted that Hancock could one day find a way back to frontline politics.

“You should be immensely proud of your service,” the prime minister wrote. “I am grateful for your support and believe that your contribution to public service is far from over.”

Hancock and Coladangelo had been friends since their time together at Oxford University and both are married with children. At the time the photos were taken, pandemic rules advised against meeting people from different households indoors.

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.

Cummings Input

Hancock, who ran against Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019, had already 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 Hancock as “hopeless.” Cummings also accused Hancock of lying and incompetence at the height of the Covid outbreak last year.

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