A cabinet minister was today forced to deny that Matt Hancock’s alleged affair with an aide in the health department broke social distancing rules.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also insisted that Whitehall rules had not been flouted by the reported appointment of Gina Coladangelo as an unpaid adviser to the Health Secretary on a six-month contract last year and then to the department’s board.
However, Labour called on the Government to be “open and transparent about whether there are any conflicts of interests or rules that have been broken”.
The Sun today published a CCTV picture allegedly showing Mr Hancock, 42, in an embrace with Ms Coladangelo, 43, in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) shortly after 3pm on May 6.
Mr Shapps told LBC radio: “I have seen the photo but, as ever with private matters, I always try to avoid commenting on other people’s personal lives and I think I’ll stick with that tradition here.”
Asked whether the Health Secretary was “ignoring social distancing”, Mr Shapps replied: “I’m quite sure that whatever the rules were at the time were followed. You’ll recall that there was a point at which social distancing rules were changed but, as I say, I don’t want to comment on somebody else’s private life — that is for them.”
It is said Ms Coladangelo, a wealthy lobbying and communications expert, was appointed as an unpaid adviser on a six-month contract in March last year. In September she was appointed as a non-executive director at the department, which is believed would earn her £15,000-a-year.
Ms Coladangelo and the Health Secretary reportedly met when they were students at Oxford University.
Asked about rules around appointing friends to government positions, Mr Shapps said: “Anyone who has been appointed has to go through an incredibly rigorous process in Government, so whatever the rules are, the rules will have to be followed. There are no shortcuts to that, as anyone who has had anything to do with the appointments system in the Civil Service knows. There are very strict rules in place.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “Ministers, like everyone, are entitled to a private life. However, when taxpayers’ money is involved or jobs are being offered to close friends who are in a personal relationship with a minister, then that needs to be looked into.
“The Government needs to be open and transparent about whether there are any conflicts of interests or rules that have been broken.”
Ms Coladangelo is also reported to have a parliamentary pass, giving her access to MPs, and to have made at least one visit to Downing Street.
A friend of the Health Secretary said: “He has no comment on personal matters. No rules have been broken.” A DHSC spokesman said the appointment was “made in the usual way and followed correct procedure”.
But the alleged affair will pile pressure on West Suffolk MP Mr Hancock who is already at the centre of controversy after former No10 aide Dominic Cummings published Whatsapp messages from Boris Johnson describing the Health Secretary’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as “hopeless”.
He has also faced criticism over the claim that a “protective ring” was thrown around care homes, over the lack of personal protective equipment for some health and social care staff, and over “chumocracy” claims that PPE and testing contracts went to people connected to MPs, though Britain’s vaccine roll-out has been world-leading.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey tweeted: “The reason Matt Hancock should resign is that he is a terrible Health Secretary, not because of his private life. From the PPE scandal, the crisis in our care service and the unbelievably poor test and trace system, he has utterly failed.”
Mr Hancock’s wife Martha left the family’s north London home at 7am today still wearing her wedding ring but declining to answer reporters’ questions. She was wearing dark glasses as she got in a hatchback Kia to go on the school run. Mr Hancock was not believed to be at home. The couple married in 2006 and have three children.
Ms Coladangelo, a mother of three, is married to Oliver Tress, who founded the fashion and lifestyle store Oliver Bonas. She was not available for comment today.