LONDON – In the end, it wasn’t the snogging, as Brits call smooching, with an aide that got Britain’s most prominent pandemic official to resign Saturday. It was, his many critics claimed, the audacious hypocrisy: the sense that ordinary people must follow to the rules, of mask-wearing and social distancing, even if the elite get to make out in government offices.
Matt Hancock announced his resignation as health secretary after the Sun tabloid earlier splashed a photograph – and later video – of the 42-year-old passionately kissing a former Oxford University friend inside the ministry’s headquarters in May, when Britons were still being implored to keep three- to six-feet apart.
Both Hancock and the aide, public relations expert Gina Coladangelo, who is married to the multimillionaire fashion tycoon Oliver Tress, have spouses and children.
But the perceived affair didn’t really rankle talk radio hosts, newspaper columnists, on the left and right – or the thousands who marched in London protesting the ongoing lockdown on Saturday. They all seemed to shrug off the alleged infidelity.
What upset them was that Hancock – night after night over the past year, in news conferences from 10 Downing Street – implored the public to respect strict social-distancing measures designed to keep the virus at bay, rules that kept loved ones and even families apart for months and months.
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he supported his health secretary and considered the snogging episode “closed.”
But the case was just getting rolling with growing calls for Hancock to step down – even from lawmakers in Hancock’s own Conservative Party.
“Those of us who have made these rules have got to stick by them, and that’s why I’ve got to resign,” Hancock said in a video posted to social media on Saturday.
In his resignation letter to the prime minister, Hancock wrote: “I owe it to people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down.”
Johnson said Saturday he was “sorry” to receive the resignation. Many noted that Johnson began dating his third wife, Carrie Johnson, a former Conservative Party media aide, while he was still married.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer tweeted:, “Matt Hancock is right to resign. But Boris Johnson should have sacked him.”
Leading up to his resignation, British media recycled clips of Hancock pressing people to stay at safe distances to stay safe.
“I’m really looking forward to hugging you as well, Dad,” Hancock said in an interview in May. “But we’ll probably do it outside and keep the ventilation going.”
“Hands, face and space,” he said, repeating a government slogan, which was mocked in a cartoon over the weekend with the word “space” changed to “embrace.”
Many also recalled that when one of Britain’s most prominent epidemiologists, Neil Ferguson, was caught by the tabloids for breaking lockdown rules, while carrying on his own extramarital affair, Hancock suggested the lapse was so serious it was “a matter for the police” to investigate.
To replace Hancock, Johnson appointed Sajid Javid, the former treasury secretary.
Coladangelo, a former lobbyist, became a nonexecutive director on the health department’s board late last year. The role pays roughly $21,000 and requires about three weeks of work annually, the BBC reported.
Her hiring prompted accusations that Hancock acted unethically by hiring his close friend.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that Coladangelo – who studied at Oxford University with Hancock – would have gone through an “incredibly rigorous process” to be appointed to her position.
The scandal is the latest stumbling block for the British government, which has long faced criticism for its handling of the health crisis, with many accusing officials for failing nursing home residents through poor testing infrastructure, locking down the country too late and failing to provide front-line staff with adequate personal protective wear.
It also comes less than half a year after a British judge ruled that Hancock acted illegally by not being transparent over government contracts that were signed during the pandemic.
Others appointed to positions that shape British health policy have also faced scrutiny.
Last year, Hancock hired Dido Harding to lead England’s multibillion dollar test-and-trace operation, which many experts regard as an expensive failure. British media reported Harding and Hancock were already friendly and connected through horse racing; she has also been criticized for a lack of health-care experience.
Britain is slowly emerging from its third national lockdown, after more than a year of restrictions that have kept many people at home and with minimal social contact. At least 128,000 people have died of the virus in the nation.
The advocacy group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK has led calls for an immediate inquiry into the official response to the pandemic.
Last month, Johnson denied that he and Hancock were responsible for tens of thousands of avoidable deaths – a claim put forward by his former aide Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s chief adviser left his position at Downing Street in November after violating lockdown rules when he took a 260-mile cross-country road trip while infected with the virus.
Cummings attempted to defend his actions, but the saga significantly eroded trust between Britons and Johnson’s government.
Since stepping down from his role, Cummings has been particularly vocal in his criticism of those leading the country’s response to the virus. He has said Johnson is “unfit” to lead the country and called for Hancock to be dismissed for “criminal, disgraceful behavior.”