By Kate Holton
LONDON (Reuters) -British health minister Matt Hancock quit on Saturday after he was caught breaking COVID-19 rules by kissing and embracing an aide in his office, enraging colleagues and the public who have been living under lockdown.
In the latest scandal to rock a government that has overseen one of the highest death tolls from the coronavirus pandemic, Hancock, 42, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign, saying he had let people down.
Since the Sun newspaper published photos on Friday of the married minister embracing a woman whom he had appointed to a taxpayer-funded role to scrutinise the performance of his department, an increasing number of his fellow Conservative lawmakers had privately called for him to go.
Hancock has been at the centre of the government's fight against the pandemic, routinely appearing on television to tell people to follow strict rules and to defend his department against criticism of its response to the crisis.
His departure means Johnson will need to appoint a new minister to take on a huge department that is responsible for overseeing the health service and tackling the virus, at a time when cases have started to rise again.
Johnson had said on Friday he had accepted Hancock's apology and considered the matter closed.
"We owe it to people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down as I have done by breaching the guidance," Hancock said in his letter.
Johnson said in reply that he was sorry to receive it.
"You should be immensely proud of your service," he wrote. "I am grateful for your support and believe that your contribution to public service is far from over."
The Sun had shown Hancock kissing the aide in his office last month, at a time when it was against the rules for people to have intimate contact with a person outside their household.
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Conservative lawmakers said many of them had told the party they no longer supported Hancock.
The opposition Labour Party had also questioned whether Hancock had broken the ministerial code: the woman, a long-time friend of the minister, was appointed as a non-executive director, on a taxpayer-funded salary, to oversee the running of his department.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter that Hancock was right to resign, adding: "But Boris Johnson should have sacked him."
With 128,000 deaths, Britain has one of the highest official death tolls from COVID-19 in the world and Hancock had been heavily criticised for his initial response to the crisis, when the government struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating patients.
However, the government has been boosted by a rapid rollout of vaccines, with 84% of adults having had one dose and 61% both, well ahead of most countries.
One person who could replace Hancock is Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, or Johnson could bring back former health minister Jeremy Hunt, according to two Conservative lawmakers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Culture minister Oliver Dowden has also been tipped in the media.
While cases have started to rise in the last month - up 18,000 on Saturday - vaccines appear to have weakened the link between infections and deaths and most restrictions could be dropped by July 19.
Despite the improving situation, the revelations around Hancock had sparked anger and accusations of hypocrisy. They also reignited the charge that Johnson's government is beset by cronyism.
Hancock had last year welcomed the resignation of a senior scientist who broke restrictions in a similar manner.
Britain's leading newspapers had all splashed the story on their front pages on Saturday, saying Hancock had lost all moral authority and would not be able to impose restrictions in future if required.
The case had echoes of an incident last year when Johnson's then most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke lockdown rules. Johnson's decision to retain him sparked fury across the country and damaged the government's standing.
(Reporting by Kate Holton, additional reporting by Elizabeth PiperEditing by Frances Kerry and Mark Potter)