Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was clinging to his job on Friday as pressure mounted on Boris Johnson to sack the minister over his relationship with a female adviser, whom he put on the government payroll.
Hancock apologised for breaking social distancing guidance after The Sun published pictures of him kissing an old university friend, Gina Coladangelo, in his Whitehall department.
Hancock this year appointed Coladangelo as a non-executive director in his department on a £15,000 salary. Labour said that if he failed to declare the relationship, he should quit for breaching the ministerial code.
Coladangelo’s brother, Roberto, is an executive at a private healthcare company which has several NHS contracts, Sky News revealed. He has worked at Partnering Health Limited — which provides urgent and primary care services to NHS patients — since October 2019.
Some Conservative MPs and Whitehall officials say Hancock cannot survive another blow to his reputation, but Johnson has shown himself willing to defend his ministers and officials at considerable political cost.
Downing Street said Johnson accepted Hancock’s apology and that he “considers the matter closed”, but the health secretary will face a torrid weekend of media and public criticism over his conduct.
“He should resign for hypocrisy — and it might save his marriage,” said one Conservative MP. Downing Street refused to say if Hancock had offered his resignation. One minister said Johnson might bring forward a planned reshuffle.
A snap Savanta ComRes poll found that 58 per cent of people thought the health secretary should resign and Downing Street will be anxiously assessing the damage in the next 24 hours.
After hours of silence on Friday, Hancock said: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry.”
However Hancock’s allies said he had not broken the law because “the health secretary and Ms Coladangelo were both in the department for legitimate work purposes”.
The department has launched an inquiry into how CCTV security footage of the pair kissing found its way to the tabloid press. “It was most likely a security guard on the minimum wage who took a picture of it with his phone,” said one Whitehall official.
The breach of government Covid-19 guidelines by Hancock will draw uncomfortable parallels with the breach of lockdown rules by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser, last year.
But Labour’s Anneliese Dodds said Johnson should also sack him if he had failed to disclose his relationship with Coladangelo, who is head of marketing at retail chain Oliver Bonas.
“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,” she said.
Coladangelo, as a non-executive director, is supposed to oversee the performance of Hancock and his department. Johnson has not ordered an investigation by Christopher Geidt, the adviser on ministerial standards.
Downing Street said: “The correct procedures were followed.”
There are no fewer than 16 figures with close Tory ties holding non-executive jobs in government, according to a new report by the Open Democracy website. The non-executives include Tory donors, peers and former MPs — even though the role is meant to involve neutral scrutiny of government decisions.
Hancock, who is married, sponsored a parliamentary pass for Coladangelo under her married name Gina Tress. Her husband, Oliver Tress, founded Oliver Bonas.
Ten days after the footage was taken of Hancock and Coladangelo kissing, the health secretary told the country to be “careful” when hugging others after social distancing rules were removed on May 17. Hancock has also been critical of others for breaking social distancing rules.
Last month, Hancock was found to have committed a breach of the ministerial code by failing to declare a stake in a family company that won an NHS contract. Lord Christopher Geidt, the new adviser on ministerial standards, said it was a “technical” oversight.
Separately, Cummings told MPs last month that Hancock should have been fired for at least 15 errors made during the pandemic, including allowing patients to leave hospital and enter care homes without being tested for Covid-19.
Cummings later revealed that Johnson had called Hancock’s efforts to increase Covid testing “totally fucking hopeless” in a private exchange.
Coladangelo declined a request for comment.