Matt Hancock has said he is “very sorry” for breaching social distancing guidance after being pictured in a clinch with a female adviser, but made clear in a statement that he does not plan to resign.
The health secretary broke cover in a statement released by an aide, in which he appealed for privacy for his family and said he was “focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic”.
He acknowledged breaking guidance by embracing Gina Coladangelo, a university friend he appointed to a director’s role at the Department of Health and Social Care.
But he indicated that he does not believe the incident breached laws designed to stem the spread of Covid, which he personally signed onto the statute book.
It came as Labour piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Hancock for what the party called “a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest”.
There was no immediate word from Downing Street on whether the health secretary will keep his job, and a regular daily media briefing was delayed for an hour in an apparent indication that No 10 was struggling to finalise its line on the scandal.
Mr Hancock ducked out of a planned appearance at a vaccine centre at Newmarket Racecourse this morning after The Sun published security camera stills showing him apparently kissing the married 43-year-old in his office at the DHSC.
In his statement, he said: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances.
“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.”
The pictures were taken with social distancing rules in place at workplaces, because of the pandemic – and two weeks before the ban on hugging between people in different households was lifted.
The health secretary was already facing questions about his appointment of Ms Coladangelo to the £15,000-a-year role, without it being properly announced last year.
Mr Hancock, 42, has been married for 15 years to Martha and has three children with her.
Ms Dodds said: “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.
“The charge sheet against Matt Hancock includes wasting taxpayers’ money, leaving care homes exposed and now being accused of breaking his own Covid rules.
“His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him.”
And Liberal Democrats said: “Hypocrite Hancock should go.”
Party health spokesperson Munira Wilson described Hancock as “a terrible Health Secretary and should have been sacked a long time ago for his failures”.
And she added: “This latest episode of hypocrisy will break the trust with the British public. He was telling families not to hug loved ones, while doing whatever he liked in the workplace.
“It’s clear that he does not share the public’s values. Rules for them and rules for us is no way to run a country.
“From the PPE scandal, the crisis in our care service and the unbelievably poor test and trace system, he has utterly failed. It is time for the health secretary to go.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps had to dodge questions about his Cabinet colleague in a round of media appearances this morning.
Mr Shapps argued it was an “entirely personal issue for Matt Hancock” and insisted all appointments went through “an incredibly rigorous process”.
“The health secretary been working very hard rolling out this vaccine programme – and I’ll leave it there,” he told Sky News.
At the time the photo was taken, indoor gatherings between people from different households were against the law, unless they came under an exemption such as being “reasonably necessary” for work.
Advice against hugging loved ones in England was not lifted until 11 days later on 17 May.
Official guidance said that people who need to meet at work should remain two metres apart - or one metre if mitigating measures such as face-coverings were used.
A year ago, Mr Hancock backed police action against Professor Neil Ferguson, the leading epidemiologist who flouted Covid rules by inviting his lover to his home.
He described the professor’s behaviour as “extraordinary”, leaving him “speechless” and said: “I think he took the right decision to resign.”
Ms Coladangelo, who met Mr Hancock at Oxford University, was a director at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon, before he quietly made her an unpaid adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care, in March last year.
In September, he promoted her to being a non-executive director at the department, meaning that she is a member of the board that scrutinises the department.
There was controversy over the lack of any public record of the appointment, which gave Ms Coladangelo a parliamentary pass and unregulated access to the Palace of Westminster.
The government was already facing allegations of “chumocracy” and a lack of transparency in appointing friends from the private sector to key roles.
Lord Evans, the head of the committee on standards in public life, warned of a perception of disregarding “the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years”.