Matt Hancock has dramatically quit as health secretary after admitting breaking Covid rules during an alleged affair with an aide in his departmental office.
The minister’s resignation statement came amid growing clamour for Boris Johnson to remove him from the cabinet or risk jeopardising vital public health messages, as the government continues to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.
The prime minister also announced that Sajid Javid, who quit as chancellor in February 2020 after a standoff with No 10 over an attempt to curtail his power at the Treasury, would return to government as health secretary.
A key face of the government’s response to the pandemic, who signed off the coronavirus regulations, Mr Hancock apologised on Friday for breaching the rules after stills of a CCTV recording showed him in his Whitehall office embracing a longtime friend who is on the government payroll.
Mr Johnson had stood by the beleaguered health secretary, however, with No 10 insisting it had full confidence in him just over 24 hours ago, despite a growing backlash from across the political divide, including backbench Conservatives, who concluded his position was “untenable”.
But in an exchange of letters with the prime minister – released on Saturday evening – Mr Hancock announced his resignation and reiterated his apology for breaking the guidance, saying he owed it to the public to “be honest when we have let them down as I have done”.
He also apologised to his family “and loved ones for putting them through this”, as questions continued to mount over the recruitment of Gina Coladangelo – a friend of Mr Hancock’s from Oxford University – to the position of non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
A video published by The Sun newspaper on Friday evening showed Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo kissing in his private Whitehall office, despite the cabinet minister repeatedly urging the public not to hug those they do not live with to control the spread of Covid-19.
Legal experts said the cabinet minister may have also broken coronavirus laws, as indoor meetings between people who did not live together or have a legal exemption were banned on the date that video was filmed.
Alongside Mr Hancock’s departure, it was also reported Ms Coladangelo would leave her £15,000 per year part-time position on the board at DHSC.
“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,” Mr Hancock added in his correspondence with the prime minister.
In his response, Mr Johnson said he was “sorry” to receive Mr Hancock’s letter, adding: “You should leave office very proud of what you have achieved – not just in tackling the pandemic, but even before Covid-19 struck us.”
“Above all, it has been your task to deal with a challenge greater than that faced by any of your predecessors, and in fighting Covid you have risen to that challenge – with the abundant energy, intelligence and determination that are your hallmark.”
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, who has shadowed Mr Hancock in the Commons during the pandemic, said: “It is right that Matt Hancock has resigned. But why didn’t Boris Johnson have the guts to sack him and why did he say the matter was closed?
“Boris Johnson has demonstrated that he has none of the leadership qualities required of a prime minister. Hancock’s replacement cannot carry on business as usual. On Hancock’s watch waiting times soared, care homes were left exposed to Covid and NHS staff were badly let down. Our NHS deserves much better.”
The move to appoint Mr Javid was immediately seized upon by Mr Johnson’s former senior aide Dominic Cummings, who claimed his elevation from the backbenches back into government as health secretary would be “awful for NHS”, as he suggested the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson, who was a former adviser to Mr Javid, had a role in his appointment.
“If I hadn’t tricked PM into firing Saj, we’d have a HMT with useless SoS/spads, no furlough scheme, total chaos instead of joint 10/11 team which was a big success,” he added. “Sad = bog standard = chasing headlines + failing = awful for NHS.”
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a group fighting for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, said it was “clear Matt Hancock needs to go and it’s absolutely right that he’s gone”.
Jo Goodman, a co-founder of the group, said: “While this government was preaching social distancing, the health secretary was acting like it was one rule for him and another rule for everyone else. It’s a pattern of behaviour we’ve seen across government over this period and it cuts deep with bereaved families who’ve been doing everything we can to follow the rules and protect others.
“But in all honesty, many of us have been wondering why a health secretary who presided over one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls in the world needed a personal scandal to resign.
“150,000 Covid-19 deaths. Bungled test and trace. Inadequate protective equipment for health staff and key workers. Covid-positive patients pushed into care homes. We know that Boris Johnson thought Hancock was hopeless from the beginning, so why did he allow him to oversee the loss of so many lives? He should have resigned a long time ago.”