Matt Hancock today admitted he broke social distancing guidance after revelations of an alleged affair with a close aide at the Health Department.
The Sun published a CCTV picture this morning reportedly showing Mr Hancock, 42, in an embrace with Gina Coladangelo, 43, in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) shortly after 3pm on May 6.
In a statement at lunchtime, he 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.”
However, Labour called for Boris Johnson to sack the Health Secretary.
However, Mr Johnson sought to move on swiftly from the controversy swirling around Mr Hancock.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has accepted the Health Secretary’s apology and considers the matter closed.”
He declined to be drawn on whether Mr Hancock broke the law - as well as the guidance - on social distancing.
Asked whether the Health Secretary had broken the ministerial code, he referred back to his statement.
“I have nothing further to add,” he said.
Mr Johnson spoke to Mr Hancock this morning at a daily meeting on coronavirus.
The No10 spokesman declined to say whether the appointment of Ms Coladangelo to the Health Department would be investigated to see if it breached any Whitehall rules.
“The appointment followed all the correct procedures,” he added.
Just hours earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had denied during a media round that Mr Hancock had broken social distancing rules.
Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: “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.
“The charge sheet against Matt Hancock includes wasting taxpayers’ money, leaving care homes exposed and now being accused of breaking his own Covid rules.
“His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”
Ten days after the CCTV footage appeared to show Mr Hancock kissing and embracing Ms Coladangelo in his central London department, he told the nation to be “careful” when hugging others and to only do it outside.
The Health Secretary said on May 16 he planned to hug his parents when the curb on physical contact ended the next day, but said he would do it outdoors in order to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.
The Health Secretary was today also accused of breaching guidance on social distancing that was in place until May 17, which said people should continue to keep their distance from anyone not in their household or support bubble.
His apparent decision to stay in the Cabinet contrasted with Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, who quit as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies after a married woman he was said to be in a relationship with visited his home during the first lockdown.
At the time, Mr Hancock said it was “extraordinary” and that he “took the right decision to resign”.
During a media round this morning when asked about the Health Secretary’s alleged affair, Mr Shapps told LBC radio: “I have seen the photo but, as ever with private matters, I always try to avoid commenting on other people’s personal lives and I think I’ll stick with that tradition here.”
Pressed whether the Health Secretary was “ignoring social distancing”, Mr Shapps replied: “I’m quite sure that whatever the rules were at the time were followed. You’ll recall that there was a point at which social distancing rules were changed but, as I say, I don’t want to comment on somebody else’s private life — that is for them.”
It is said Ms Coladangelo, a wealthy lobbying and communications expert, was appointed as an unpaid adviser on a six-month contract in March last year.
In September she was appointed as a non-executive director at the department, which is believed would earn her £15,000-a-year.
Ms Coladangelo and the Health Secretary reportedly met when they were students at Oxford University.
Asked about rules around appointing friends to government positions, Mr Shapps said: “Anyone who has been appointed has to go through an incredibly rigorous process in Government, so whatever the rules are, the rules will have to be followed.
“There are no shortcuts to that, as anyone who has had anything to do with the appointments system in the Civil Service knows.
“There are very strict rules in place.”
Ms Coladangelo is also reported to have a parliamentary pass, giving her access to MPs, and to has made at least one visit to Downing Street.
A DHSC spokesman said the appointment was “made in the usual way and followed correct procedure”.
Ms Coladangelo, a mother of three, is married to Oliver Tress, who founded fashion and lifestyle store Oliver Bonas.
The alleged affair will pile pressure on West Suffolk MP Mr Hancock who is already at the centre of controversy after former No10 aide Dominic Cummings published WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson describing the Health Secretary’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as “hopeless”.
He has also faced criticism over the claim that a “protective ring” was thrown around care homes, over the lack of personal protective equipment for some health and social care staff, and over “chumocracy” claims that PPE and testing contracts went to people connected to MPs, though Britain’s vaccine roll-out has been world-leading.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey tweeted: “The reason Matt Hancock should resign is that he is a terrible Health Secretary, not because of his private life.”
Mr Hancock’s wife Martha left the family’s north London home at 7am today still wearing her wedding ring but declining to answer reporters’ questions.
She was wearing dark glasses as she got into a hatchback Kia to go on the school run. Mr Hancock was not believed to be at home.
The couple married in 2006 and have three children.
Ms Coladangelo, believed to live in Wandsworth, was not available for comment today.