UK health minister admits virus rules breach with embrace


LONDON — Britain’s health minister apologized Friday for breaching national restrictions after a newspaper ran pictures of him embracing a woman with whom he allegedly had an affair.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has led the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, is the latest in a string of government officials to be accused of breaching restrictions imposed on the rest of the population to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The tabloid Sun newspaper ran images appearing to show the married Hancock and a senior aide embracing in an office at the Department of Health. It said the closed circuit television images were taken May 6 — 11 days before lockdown rules were eased to allow hugs and other physical contact with people outside one’s own household.

Hancock said in a statement that “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances.”

“I have let people down and am very sorry,” he said. “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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood by Hancock, but the main opposition Labour Party said he should be fired for breaking social distancing and, potentially, government hiring rules.

“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,” said Labour chairwoman Anneliese Dodds.

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

Johnson spokesman Jamie Davies said the prime minister had full confidence in Hancock.

“The prime minister has accepted the health secretary’s apology and considers the matter closed,” he said. “He and the rest of the government remain focused on continuing to tackle the pandemic.”

Davies said “the appointment followed all the correct procedures.” The aide was employed last year as an unpaid adviser and this year became a non-executive director at the Department of Health, a role that pays about 15,000 pounds ($21,000) a year.

Hancock has faced weeks of pressure since the prime minister’s former top aide, Dominic Cummings, accused him of botching the government’s response to the pandemic. Cummings, now a bitter critic of the government he once served, told lawmakers last month that Hancock “should have been fired” for alleged lies and errors. He also published a WhatsApp message in which Johnson branded Hancock “totally (expletive) hopeless.”

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