LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was under mounting pressure on Saturday to fire his health secretary after the admission that he broke Covid-19 guidelines by kissing an employee sparked accusations of blatant hypocrisy.
Matt Hancock, 42, has been at the centre of the government's fight against the pandemic, routinely telling people to follow strict rules and even welcoming the resignation last year of a senior scientist who broke restrictions in a similar manner.
Hancock apologised on Friday after The Sun newspaper showed him kissing and embracing a senior aide in his office last month, at a time when it was against the rules for people to have intimate contact with a person outside their household.
The opposition Labour Party also questioned whether he had broken the ministerial code: the woman, a long-time friend of Hancock's, was appointed as a non-executive director, on a taxpayer-funded salary, to oversee and scrutinise the running of his department.
"I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances," Hancock said. "I have let people down and am very sorry." Johnson said on Friday he considered the matter closed.
But Britain's leading newspapers, which all splashed the story on their front pages, said Hancock had lost any moral authority and must go. One lawmaker in his party, Duncan Baker, called on him to resign.
"Mr Hancock cannot now hope to put on a straight face and tell us how to behave and seriously expect us to listen," The Sun said in its leader column. "There is the rank stench of hypocrisy."
With 128,000 deaths, Britain has one of the highest official death tolls from Covid-19 in the world.
While new daily cases have risen in the last month, with almost 16,000 reported on Friday, a rapid vaccine rollout appears to have broken the link between infections and deaths and most restrictions could be dropped by July 19.
British people have largely accepted the imposition of rules designed to contain the virus but the Hancock revelation drew comparison to an incident last year when Johnson's then most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, also broke the rules, sparking fury across the country.
Johnson, prime minister since 2019, has refused on a number of occasions to sack ministers, including his interior minister who was found to have broken rules by shouting and swearing at staff, prompting the official ethics adviser to resign instead.
The prime minister has himself been criticised in an official report over his personal finances.
And the country's spending watchdog has criticised the way the government awarded billions of pounds of contracts related to fighting Covid-19 after some multi-million pound orders went to companies with links to ministers, lawmakers and officials.
The health ministry has said it needed to move quickly.
The revelations have led to charges of cronyism and incompetence, although Johnson's Conservative Party remains comfortably ahead in opinion polls. The Times newspaper said Johnson's approach to governing put public support at risk.
"The danger is that this cavalier approach to rules is becoming corrosive to that most precious commodity for any government - public trust," it said.