British Health Minister Matt Hancock has resigned, a day after being called out for breaking social distancing rules by kissing an aide.
The 42-year-old handed his resignation to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday after The Sun tabloid published photos of the married minister embracing a woman who he had appointed to a taxpayer-funded role to scrutinise the performance of his department.
The pictures that enraged the public and politicians were taken on May 6 – 11 days before lockdown rules were eased to allow hugs and other physical contact with people outside one’s own household.
Hancock has been at the centre of the government’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, routinely appearing on television and radio to tell people to follow the strict rules to contain the virus.
His departure means Johnson will have to appoint a new minister to take on the huge department that is responsible for overseeing the health service and tackling COVID-19 at a time when cases have started to rise again.
Johnson had said on Friday he had accepted an apology from Hancock and considered the matter to be closed, but the latter had faced rising pressure to step down.
“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 resignation 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 main opposition Labour Party also questioned whether he had broken the ministerial code: the woman, a longtime friend of Hancock’s, was appointed as a non-executive director, on a taxpayer-funded salary, to oversee the running of his ministry.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter that Hancock was right to resign. “But Boris Johnson should have sacked him,” he added.
With 128,000 deaths, the United Kingdom has one of the highest official death tolls from COVID-19 in the world and Hancock, in the post for almost three years, had been heavily criticised for his initial handling of the pandemic.
However, Johnson’s Conservative government has been boosted by a rapid rollout of the vaccine programme, with 84 percent of adults having one dose and 61 percent having both, well ahead of most other countries.