The sensational image of Matt Hancock in a clinch with a female aide caps off a difficult week for Boris Johnson, compounding critics’ frustration over the Government’s lingering coronavirus restrictions.
The bombshell claims of the Health Secretary conducting an affair also threaten to reprise awkward questions for the Prime Minister about the personal conduct of a series of his closest political associates throughout the pandemic.
The footage of the Health Secretary caught in an embrace with Gina Coladangelo was reportedly taken in early May, at a juncture of the lockdown when hugging someone from another household was banned under Government guidance.
Legal commentators have this morning seized upon the question of whether Mr Hancock’s behaviour may have been illegal, wading through the complicated list of rules that are split between requirements under law and advice.
Adam Wagner, a high-profile barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, was among the first to raise the "important question of whether the Health Secretary broke his own lockdown laws", and added: "Private indoor meetings between people not living together were unlawful for most of the past year."
While Mr Hancock himself is yet to comment on the matter, a friend has insisted to The Sun that "no rules have been broken".
Gina Coladangelo (bottom left) was made a non-executive director at the Department for Health and Social Care last September
Credit: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street
However, the debate sparked by the revelations over his conduct today once again highlight the knotty nature of the evolving coronavirus restrictions, which lockdown sceptics have long criticised as confusing as well as heavy-handed and overly onerous.
It is well known that the Health Secretary has been one of the most "doveish" Cabinet ministers throughout the Covid-19 crisis, pushing for stricter restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus.
If even he is shown to be unable to follow the letter, or even the spirit, of the rules, however, the debacle over his alleged affair threatens to undermine the enduring restrictions.
He is also unlikely to be thanked by Cabinet colleagues, who will be sent out on the airwaves in the days and weeks ahead to urge ongoing public compliance with the remaining rules, including the current advice against foreign holidays in amber list countries.
Senior Tory backbenchers have already voiced their growing frustration over what they view as an underwhelming relaxation of international travel rules on Thursday.
Henry Smith, the Conservative chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group, hit back at the latest easement as "overly cautious", and told Politico that it "won’t allow international travel and the UK industry to reopen in a meaningful way".
Dominic Cummings was forced to apologise after visiting Barnard Castle last year, allegedly to test his eyesight
Credit: JONATHAN BRADY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Huw Merriman, Tory chairman of the Transport Committee, also took a dim view, saying: "Like an oasis just out of reach, travel to more than 150 countries on the amber list is still unnecessarily difficult."
For MPs in the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group it represented only the latest disappointment after Mr Johnson delayed Step 4 of his roadmap out of restrictions by four weeks until July 19.
Labour and the SNP have leapt on the questions that arise from the allegations about Mr Hancock’s love life and the use of taxpayer funds to hire a Cabinet minister’s close friend, after it emerged Ms Coladangelo was made a non-executive director at the Department for Health and Social Care last September.
For many members of the public, including grandparents who were banned from hugging their grandchildren at the alleged moment the Health Secretary was seen kissing his aide, it is likely to be the allegation of a breach of social distancing rules that demands the most urgent answer.
A key problem for the Prime Minister is that this is far from the first time a senior ally has been at the centre of a furore about alleged bending of the rules.
Neil Ferguson resigned from his role as a senior Government adviser after admitting that he had undermined social distancing rules by meeting his 'lover' at his home
Credit: Thomas Angus/Imperial College London
The visit last in Spring last year by Dominic Cummings to Barnard Castle, allegedly to test his eyesight, sparked widespread anger across the country.
A row also erupted over Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, visiting his parents during the first lockdown in April 2020. Both he and Mr Cummings denied breaching the rules.
Then in May last year Professor Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose research helped usher in the initial lockdown, resigned from his role as a senior Government adviser after admitting that he had undermined social distancing rules by meeting his "lover" at his home.
It has not gone unnoticed in Westminster today that Mr Hancock said at the time that he was left "speechless" at the "extraordinary" behaviour of Professor Ferguson, and added: "I think he took the right decision to resign… I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them."
In the coming hours, Mr Johnson will have to consider whether Mr Hancock retains the moral authority to preside over health policy and remain a member of the "quad" – the four most senior ministers shaping the nation’s response to the pandemic.