Pressure is mounting for an investigation into Matt Hancock’s lockdown-breaching relationship with an aide, as Boris Johnson attempted to save his health secretary by declaring the matter “closed”.
The prime minister was branded “spineless” after brushing aside demands to sack Mr Hancock, who was caught on camera in a romantic clinch in his departmental office with a longtime friend whom he had put on the government payroll.
Mr Hancock, 42, acknowledged that his embrace with married 43-year-old Gina Coladangelo had broken social distancing rules and said he was “very sorry”. But he made clear that he intended to fight to keep his job, and Mr Johnson later said he accepted his apology.
Labour wrote to the PM and his standards adviser, Christopher Geidt, demanding an inquiry into whether the health secretary had breached the ministerial code of conduct, which requires members of the government to – in Mr Johnson’s words – “uphold the very highest standards of propriety”.
A snap poll by Savanta ComRes found that a clear majority of 58 per cent – including 46 per cent of Tory supporters – thought Mr Hancock should resign, against just 25 per cent who said he should not.
And there were signs that the appointment of millionaire PR executive Ms Coladangelo, a university friend of the health secretary, as a £15,000-a-year non-executive director in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had raised hackles among officials.
One senior DHSC civil servant told The Independent: “Apart from the social distancing point, the probity of these appointments had a bad odour at the time. Now they just stink.”
Unlike his predecessors, Lord Geidt has the power to recommend the launch of a sleaze inquiry, rather than being required to wait for the PM to order one – though Mr Johnson retains the final say on launching a probe.
The independent adviser has already found Mr Hancock to be in breach of the code over his shareholding in a company that won NHS Wales contracts and which is part-owned by his sister. Lord Geidt told MPs last month that he was ready to take the “nuclear option” of resigning if his recommendations are ignored.
In her letter to the PM, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said it appeared that Mr Hancock had “failed to declare that he was engaged in a relationship with someone who he personally appointed at taxpayers’ expense to serve as an adviser”.
“Such a failure would appear to be a further breach of the ministerial code, which in these circumstances should surely result in his removal from office,” she said.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the prime minister continued to have “full confidence” in Mr Hancock, adding: “The prime minister has accepted the health secretary’s apology and considers the matter closed.”
But the spokesperson refused to reveal whether the PM had consulted with his independent standards adviser or to say whether Mr Johnson believed Mr Hancock had broken the law or the ministerial code.
The Labour chair, Anneliese Dodds, insisted the cabinet minister’s actions amounted to “a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest” that rendered his position “hopelessly untenable”.
And Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi said: “I think it’s a bad decision by Matt and a bad decision by the PM.”
Lady Warsi told Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch: “I think he’s got a huge amount of questions to answer in relation to Covid contracts, access to parliament, appointment to the board, giving out jobs.”
The website Open Democracy said it had identified at least 16 individuals with close links to the Conservative Party, including donors and former MPs, who had also been given non-executive director roles in Whitehall departments.
Ms Rayner accused ministers of “using every opportunity they can to do favours for their chums”. And Sue Hawley, from the charity Spotlight on Corruption, said the appointments risked “allowing political capture of whole government departments”.
A Labour spokesperson said: “This matter is definitely not closed, despite the government’s attempts to cover it up.
“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 prime minister recently described him as ‘useless’ – the fact that, even now, he still can’t sack him shows how spineless he is.”
The Downing Street spokesperson was asked what Mr Johnson would say to voters who felt that his refusal to discipline Mr Hancock showed there was “one rule for them and another rule for us”.
He replied: “The prime minister has said previously that the vast majority of the public have followed the rules throughout the pandemic and we are extremely thankful to them for doing so.”
Pictures published by The Sun showed Mr Hancock locked in a passionate embrace in his departmental office, while leaning on the door in an apparent effort to prevent it being opened.
The pictures, apparently recorded on security cameras in his DHSC office, were taken on 6 May this year, two weeks before the ban on hugging between people in different households was lifted.
Official guidance said that people should meet at work only if “reasonably necessary” and should remain two metres apart – or one metre if mitigating measures such as face-coverings were used.
Just days after the encounter, Mr Hancock urged the public to “hug carefully” when restrictions were eased on 17 May, saying he planned to give his parents a hug but would do it outside where ventilation was better.
In a statement, Mr Hancock – married for 15 years to his wife, Martha, with whom he has three children – said: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances.
“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.”
Downing Street insisted that the process of Ms Coladangelo’s appointment – first as an unpaid adviser last year, and then as a non-executive director to the DHSC – “followed correct procedure”.
Challenged over whether Mr Hancock’s actions may have breached the lockdown laws that he himself signed on to the statute book, the PM’s spokesperson said only: “The details of the guidance and rules have been published throughout the pandemic and they are all available for people to view.”
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said: “This latest episode of hypocrisy will break the trust of the British public. He was telling families not to hug loved ones, while doing whatever he liked in the workplace.
“From the PPE scandal, the crisis in our care service and the unbelievably poor test and trace system, he has utterly failed. It is time for the health secretary to go.”