Matt Hancock came under fresh scrutiny today as photos obtained by the Sun newspaper emerged that appear to show him in an embrace with his close advisor, Gina Coladangelo.
The encounter reportedly took place on 6 May this year in Mr Hancock’s office at the Department of Health.
Responding to the story, his Department told the tabloid that “no rules have been broken”. Meanwhile the transport secretary Grant Shapps assured LBC that “I’m quite sure that whatever the rules were at the time – they were followed”.
But just hours later, Mr Hancock himself said that he had “breached the social distancing guidance”.
The guidelines in place at the time stated: “Social distancing is still very important. You should stay 2 metres apart from anyone who is not in your household or support bubble where possible, or 1 metre with extra precautions in place (such as wearing face coverings) if you cannot stay 2 metres apart.” As we can see from the pictures, Mr Hancock and Ms Colangelo were within one metre of each other and neither seemed to be taking “extra precautions” such as using a face covering.
And as well as contradicting his own Department’s earlier comment, Mr Hancock’s statement raises a further question: beyond breaching guidance, did he break the law?
The regulations that were in force at the time of the apparent embrace made indoor gatherings between “two or more people” illegal. Exemptions were permitted for things like visiting a dying person or going to school.
But the clause that’s probably most relevant here is the one that allows indoor gatherings that are “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who has been following the details of coronavirus legislation throughout the pandemic, told Sky News that “it’s quite difficult to understand how what we see in the picture could be reasonably necessary for work purposes. So I think this probably is a breach of Matt Hancock’s own regulations”.
“Was this a breach of the law? I think it’s quite likely it was,” Mr Wagner added later.
Matt Hancock said at lunchtime: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry”.
The Department of Health was contacted for comment.