Matt Hancock apologises after photos show him kissing aide

Health secretary vows to stay on as health secretary despite breaching Covid social distancing rules

Matt Hancock has apologised for breaching social distancing rules but said he would stay on as health secretary after photographs emerged of him kissing a longtime friend who has a job at his department.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats called for him to go after the Sun acquired CCTV photos of Hancock in a “clinch” at his office with Gina Coladangelo, who he appointed last year to be a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

According to the paper, the images were from 6 May. Under the government’s unlocking timetable, intimate contact with people outside your own household was only permitted from 17 May.

In a statement, Hancock 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.”

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour chair, said that if Hancock had been having a relationship with Coladangelo it was “a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest”. Dodds added: “His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”

The Liberal Democrats also called for Hancock to go. Munira Wilson, the party’s health spokesperson, said it was “hypocrisy” that he urged people to avoid close contact while kissing someone not in his household.

Downing Street had no immediate comment about Hancock’s future. The daily No 10 media briefing was postponed for an hour on Friday.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said earlier that there were “very rigorous” processes before people were appointed to the sort of role filled by Coladangelo at his department.

In November last year, Labour complained about apparent cronyism after it emerged that Coladangelo, the head of marketing at the Oliver Bonas retail chain and a university friend of Hancock, had first been made an unpaid adviser at the DHSC and then a non-executive director, a part-time role paid £15,000 a year.

Parliamentary records also show that in 2019, Hancock sponsored Coladangelo for a parliamentary pass, which she received under her married name, Gina Tress. Her husband, Oliver Tress, is the founder and head of Oliver Bonas. She was formerly an executive for the PR and lobbying firm Luther Pendragon.

Shapps said such roles involved significant civil service oversight and declined to comment on the nature of the relationship between Hancock and Coladangelo.

“The only thing I know is that if you are appointed to a government position there are very rigorous programmes in place when people are appointed, which require all sorts of civil service signoff before public money is spent,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “That’s the situation I’m sure will be followed in a position like this.”

Pressed on whether the new photos indicated cronyism, Shapps said: “From a civil service point of view, you have to go through a very strenuous approach to appoint anybody to anything at all. From a private point of view, people are entitled to their own judgments but people’s private lives are people’s private lives, and I don’t think it’s the place of politicians to go commenting on them.”

Asked in a separate interview with LBC whether any lockdown rules had been broken, Shapps said he was “quite sure that whatever the rules were at the time were followed”.

It follows a highly difficult few weeks for Hancock. Giving evidence to MPs last month, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, said the health secretary should have been sacked amid the Covid pandemic, saying he had repeatedly lied.

This week, footage of Johnson having his first in-person weekly audience with the Queen in 15 months showed the monarch referring to Hancock as “your secretary of state for health, poor man”.

This month, Cummings published screenshots of phone messages including one from Johnson that called Hancock “totally fucking hopeless”.

Last year, when Prof Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist who has helped shape the government’s response to coronavirus, quit his advisory role for breaking social distancing rules by having a woman visit him at his home, Hancock said he would support the idea of police taking action against him.

According to the Sun, the images show Hancock and Coladangelo kissing at about 3pm on 6 May. An unnamed “friend” of the health secretary told the paper: “He has no comment on personal matters. No rules have been broken.”

Hancock has previously been accused of showing favours to friends and other cronyism, such as awarding a contract to a former neighbour to produce vials for NHS Covid-19 tests, despite him having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.

Last month, Hancock was found to have broken the ministerial code “in technical terms” by failing to declare a stake in a family company that won an NHS contract.

Questions were raised about Hancock’s register of interests, given that his sister and brother-in-law run a company called Topwood Ltd, in which the health secretary has a 20% stake. The firm won a contract with NHS Shared Business Services Ltd in 2019, but he did not immediately declare his interest.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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