FILE PHOTO: Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock leaves his house, in London, Britain June 17, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
By Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) -British Health Secretary Matt Hancock apologised on Friday for breaching coronavirus 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 newspaper showed Hancock kissing the woman - a friend hired for a taxpayer-funded role - in his office.
Hancock, 42, has been at the centre of the government's fight against the 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.
"I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances," he 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 Boris Johnson said the prime minister had accepted Hancock's apology and had full confidence in him.
"(He) considers the matter closed," he said.
The opposition Labour Party called on Johnson to fire Hancock and demanded an investigation into whether he breached the ministerial code.
"This matter is definitely not closed, despite the government's attempts to cover it up," a spokesperson 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."
The photographs raised more questions about Hancock's judgment, both in appointing a friend to a taxpayer-funded role and in breaking COVID-19 guidance imposed on millions of people by the government.
Hancock has been criticised for his department's handling of the pandemic, particularly in the early months last year when it struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients.
Hancock was found in February to have acted unlawfully by not revealing details of contracts signed during the crisis. The health ministry said it had needed to move within very short timescales and against unparalleled global demand.
Hancock also said last year that it was right that a government scientist resigned after he broke COVID rules by meeting a partner.
More than half of UK adults said that Hancock should resign, according to an opinion poll on Friday. Savanta ComRes found 58% of those polled thought he step down.
"It's a disgrace," said Charlie Irwin, a 19-year-old who lives in Kent in the south of England. The government has been "so onto us about, you know, 'you can't do this, you can't do that,' and then to go and break them."
The Sun tabloid said the pictures of Hancock, who is married, and the aide were taken in his department last month. It did not say how it obtained the security camera images, but it cited a whistleblower as commenting on the relationship.
The Sun said 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.
Asked about the appropriateness of appointing friends to positions in government, Transport Minister 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," Shapps said.