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British Health Minister Matt Hancock resigns after social distancing furor


LONDON – The embattled UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned on Saturday, the day after a tabloid posted photos of him in a steamy embrace with one of his senior staff – an apparent violation of UK social distancing guidelines.

Mr Hancock, who led the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, was the youngest member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration to be accused of breaking the strict rules imposed on the rest of the country.

“I understand the tremendous sacrifices that everyone in this country has made – that you have made,” said a reformed Mr Hancock in a video statement posted on Saturday night. “Those of us who make these rules have to abide by them, so I have to resign.”

Initially, Mr. Hancock refused to resign and had the support of Mr. Johnson. But with at least one Conservative MP calling for his resignation and newspapers full of stories of double standards for the political elite, Hancock concluded that his position had become untenable.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr. Hancock wrote, “The last thing I want is my private life to divert attention from the single-minded focus that is leading us out of this crisis.” Mr. Hancock, who is married, apologized to him Family and said he had to be with his three children.

Mr. Johnson appointed Sajid Javid, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, to succeed Mr. Hancock.

For an ambitious 42-year-old cabinet minister who had become a familiar figure over the long months of the pandemic, it was a quick fall out of favor. Mr Hancock was a staple of Downing Street press conferences, often exhorting the public to abide by lockdowns and other restrictions in order to contain the spread of the virus.

In the end, Mr. Hancock’s failure to live by his own rules ruined him. The Sun posted pictures – and later videos – from a surveillance camera in Mr Hancock’s office showing him hugging and kissing Gina Coladangelo, an Oxford college friend whom he had recruited as a consultant.

Newspapers reported that the pictures were taken on May 6th, when restrictions in England were still prohibiting indoor social gatherings for people from different households. People were asked to stay two meters apart and avoid “personal contact”. These restrictions have since been relaxed.

Mr. Hancock admitted breaking the rules. On Friday he said he was “very sorry” and had “let people down”. Downing Street initially said the Prime Minister had accepted Mr Hancock’s apology and considered the matter closed.

Even before he was engulfed in scandal, Mr. Hancock had become something of a lightning rod for controversy. Two weeks ago, a former chief adviser to Mr. Johnson, Dominic Cummings, posted text messages between him and the Prime Minister in which Mr. Johnson described Mr. Hancock as “hopeless” and added profanity.

Mr Cummings blamed much of the blame on Mr Hancock for Britain’s messy handling of the pandemic, saying he had failed to put in place a competent testing and tracing program and allowed the virus to spread by moving the elderly from hospitals to nursing homes . Mr. Hancock flatly denied the allegations.

Mr Cummings himself came under fire a year ago for driving 260 miles to visit his parents in the north of England while the country was on lockdown. He, too, refused to resign and it took another six months for Mr. Johnson to oust him.

The Labor Party, which has tried to turn the scandals in Mr Johnson’s administration into a political issue, accused him of failing to act faster in this latest episode. “Matt Hancock is right to resign,” said Labor leader Keir Starmer on Twitter. “But Boris Johnson should have fired him.”

Other questions remain. One concerns the circumstances surrounding the hiring of Mrs. Coladangelo, who is also married, by Mr. Hancock as non-executive director of the health department. She had previously worked for the fashion retailer Oliver Bonas, which was founded by her husband Oliver Tress.

Another concerns the placement of a surveillance camera in Mr. Hancock’s office. Some experts suggested it had done in secret to catch the minister in his private entanglements.

When news of Mr Hancock’s indiscretions broke on Friday, political analysts said he could survive the turmoil because he worked for Mr Johnson, who had his own messy personal life and was recently married for the third time.

In a letter accepting Mr. Hancock’s resignation, Johnson credited him with building a network of field hospitals to deal with the flood of Covid patients; Use of the drug dexamethasone to mitigate the effects of Covid; and securing protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

“It was your job to face a challenge that is greater than that of your predecessors,” wrote Mr Johnson, “and in the fight against Covid you are up to this challenge.”

Stephen Castle contributed to the coverage.

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