How much trouble is Matt Hancock in? The Sun splashes this morning on the Health Secretary’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo. The paper has obtained screen grabs from leaked Whitehall CCTV footage showing very little the way of social distancing.
The images are from the start of May, when laws were still in place to enforce social distancing. Hancock has issued a brief statement this morning, apologising for breaking the rules: ‘I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance. 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.’
Despite the statement, the story is very unlikely to go away. Hancock is feeling the heat on two fronts: the first that he explicitly broke Covid rules, the second that Coladangelo was on the government’s payroll, receiving at least £15,000 of taxpayer money.
As Mr Steerpike reports, there is no public record of Coladangelo’s appointment. No doubt Hancock’s team will be scrambling to find the paperwork now to show her job was all above board. Until that proof surfaces, it looks like the Labour party is going to go to town on the accusation that taxpayer funds were misallocated. Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner is bringing up old questions about her appointment, suggesting they went unanswered then and need to be addressed now.
But it may well be that his breach of Covid rules gives Hancock the bigger headache. The footage is from 6 May when it was still illegal for couples living separately to go into each other's homes unless they were bubbled. A casual tryst was completely off the cards. One of the most pro-lockdown ministers, the Health Secretary has favoured caution over liberty at nearly every stage of this crisis, pushing for crude laws instead of gentle guidance when it comes to the most personal and intimate aspects of our lives (Hancock himself has even given advice about who was allowed to have sex under the rules).
The story fits a trend. The list of ministers who seem to think that the rules don’t apply to them (detailed in this week’s magazine) is growing. Unlike Hancock’s affair, often the behaviour isn’t explicitly against the rules: instead loopholes and exemptions are crafted to benefit those who make the laws for the rest of us. And the hypocrisy is starting to grate.
Outrage was already growing over the quarantine exemption granted to Uefa’s 2,500 VIPs, who will be flying into London for the Euro finals. In a credulity stretching claim, Grant Shapps has said that the VIPs will be part of a scientific research programme. Photos showing the G7’s barbeque haven’t gone down well either: there were no masks or social distancing in sight on the part of world leaders. ‘Was Cornwall exempt?’ jokes one government official who attended the summit. ‘There was no adherence to the rules.’ The public has clocked these inconsistencies — and with Freedom Day delayed by four weeks, tensions are building over the parallel lifestyles playing out in Covid Britain.
Hancock could find himself in a very tricky situation next week if the government doesn't take advantage of the 'break clause' in the roadmap delay and opts to wait another two weeks to reopen. How will he explain this to the public, when it seems the rules stopped applying to him in the Department of Health offices months ago? Boris Johnson has accepted Matt Hancock’s apology, says No. 10. But how much longer will the public’s good will towards the government last? It’s a question Hancock may not want answered.