Matt Hancock should face the sack as Health Secretary over breaching Covid rules to conduct an affair if public anger matches the backlash against Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, Cabinet ministers have warned.
Tory MPs urged Boris Johnson to "pull the plug" on Mr Hancock and expressed their frustration to party whips over the Health Secretary’s "hypocritical" behaviour.
A Cabinet source told The Telegraph that while Mr Johnson was "standing by" Mr Hancock at present, "it could unravel pretty quickly". The frontbencher added: "If there is a Barnard Castle moment, he is going to be under quite a lot of pressure."
A senior government source said public reaction was being monitored and could determine Mr Hancock’s fate.
The Health Secretary was accused by senior lawyers of having "likely" broken the law, not just Covid guidance, after images of him in a clinch with aide Gina Coladangelo in his office in early May were published.
At the time the image was captured, said to be May 6, the nation was in step two of the roadmap out of restrictions. Hugging was banned under the guidance, while socialising indoors between people from different households was illegal bar limited exceptions.
Mr Hancock’s wife, Martha, was seen leaving the family home on Friday night with what appeared to be overnight bags, though it was not clear where she was going.
The Health Secretary apologised for breaching social distancing guidance and the Prime Minister sought to draw a line under the episode by saying he accepted the apology and the matter was "closed", Number 10 said.
However, there were mounting questions over the details of Ms Coladangelo’s appointment as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care, paid £15,000 a year. Cabinet ministers said that while Mr Hancock was safe for now, he could be forced out if more details emerge that draw into question what has happened with Ms Coladangelo.
A minute of CCTV footage of the pair was released by The Sun on Friday night, appearing to show Mr Hancock checking the coast was clear before Mrs Coladangelo approaches him and they embrace. Pictures were also released showing the pair on a dinner date in West London last month.
Claims the couple had been "all over each other" in the office this week also emerged.
It also emerged that Ms Coladangelo’s brother is an executive at a private healthcare company that has been awarded NHS contracts worth millions of pounds since she became an adviser to the Department of Health. Sky News reported on Friday that Roberto Coladangelo is an executive at Partnering Health, which provides urgent and primary care services and has been awarded at least two NHS contracts.
A spokesman for Partnering Health said the company "has been operating for over 11 years and at all times has secured contracts through the robust tender and procurement processes put in place by local clinical commissioning groups. At no time have any contracts been awarded outside of these rigorous processes".
There is mounting anger over the incident among the Cabinet and Conservative Party.
One Cabinet minister privately said Mr Hancock’s behaviour reinforced a feeling of "us and them", with ministers failing to abide by rules they forced voters to adhere to.
The minister said that while it "looks very, very bad", Mr Johnson was "standing by him [Mr Hancock] at this moment" but added: "This could unravel pretty quickly if the affair started before she was appointed or after. That is relevant. If there is a Barnard Castle moment, he is going to be under quite a lot of pressure."
The minister added of Mr Hancock: "I don’t know how he has got the energy – dealing with a pandemic and doing that on the side."
Another well-placed government source said that Downing Street was yet to sack Mr Hancock because it "doesn’t want to go ‘Back to Basics’", referring to a 1993 speech by John Major, then the prime minister. It promoted traditional values such as "neighbourliness, decency, courtesy", but became the subject of ridicule when a succession of ministers were caught up in scandals in its wake.
However, the source added that would change if it became clear that there was public anger over the incident comparable with that over Mr Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle during lockdown.
More than half (58 per cent) of UK adults think Mr Hancock should resign, a snap poll by Savanta ComRes showed on Friday.
Baroness Foster of Oxton, a Tory peer, accused Mr Hancock on Twitter of having "used emergency powers to impose these punitive restrictions leading to horrendous consequences across society without debate yet ignored them himself & at work!"
Backbench Conservative MPs contacted their whips about the Health Secretary. One texted: "You don’t need me to tell you what I think." Another said that "children have missed out in so many ways" and that Mr Hancock’s behaviour was "so hypocritical", while a third MP said the Government "is looking ridiculous now, I am sorry to say".
It has also been noted that Mr Hancock said last May last year that he was "speechless" at the "extraordinary" behaviour of Prof Neil Ferguson, who was revealed to have met his "lover" in his home in breach of social distancing rules.
The senior scientist, whose research paved the way for the first lockdown, admitted he had undermined the regulations and the Health Secretary said at the time: "I think he took the right decision to resign … I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them."
Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said it was "quite likely" that Mr Hancock had broken the law, not just social distancing guidance.
He told Sky News: "The only exception [to the law against people from different households socialising indoors] which could even arguably apply here is that what they were doing was reasonably necessary for work purposes, but it’s quite difficult to understand how what we see in the picture could have been reasonably necessary for work purposes."
Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for the North West, told The Telegraph: "Arguably there is a case to answer that Matt Hancock broke the law, given the regulations at the time. Mr Hancock’s behaviour couldn’t possibly be seen to be an exception for work."
On Friday night, a source close to Mr Hancock said: "No laws have been broken. The Health Secretary and Ms Coladangelo were both in the department for legitimate work purposes."
Downing Street also insisted Ms Coladangelo’s appointment "followed correct procedure" but refused to confirm other details.
The Telegraph understands that the affair started in May, according to friends, and Ms Coladangelo’s appointment to the board "significantly predates" it.
It is the latest scandal to engulf Mr Hancock after he was accused by Mr Cummings of lying to the Prime Minister over whether patients were sent from hospitals to care homes at the height of the pandemic without being tested for Covid.
A senior Tory MP added: "I don’t think his position is tenable – it is not the affair. It is when you are putting in regulations and advice for people to live their lives by, when you advocate for it or vote for it, you shape it and then you don’t do so yourself.
"For the PM to say it is a closed matter … When you start to make exceptions for special categories of people like international VIPs and government ministers, it risks throwing away the goodwill we built up because of the success of the vaccines programme.
"I am very surprised he has not simply resigned. What will follow from this is [whether there was any breach of] the ministerial code. He made that appointment as secretary of state."
A former Tory minister said Mr Johnson had to sack Mr Hancock, saying: "His position is completely unsustainable. Boris has been through this before with Cummings and he lost an awful lot of political capital by supporting Cummings.
"Boris cannot afford to expend any more political capital on Matt Hancock. We already know he thinks he is hopeless. Boris should make sure he leaves now – he should get rid. Boris is going to get slaughtered over this if he does not get rid of him.
"What he can’t afford is a re-run of Cummings. I am bracing myself for the avalanche of emails I am going to get from constituents asking ‘why is the man still there?’. Boris should chop him immediately – today."
A Number 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister retained full confidence in Mr Hancock, but refused to confirm that the Health Secretary had not broken the law.
Separately, it also emerged on Friday that Mr Hancock was facing an investigation over whether he had breached House of Commons rules by failing to declare a family link to an NHS supplier earlier this year.
Kathryn Stone, the Commons standards commissioner, disclosed that she had started an investigation into whether he had breached the MPs’ code of conduct. A note on her website said she was looking at whether he had failed to make a "registration of interest under Category 7 of the Guide to the Rules [Shareholdings]".
This would a breach of part 14 of the code which states that "members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests". If Mr Hancock is found to have committed wrongdoing, he could be forced to apologise to the Commons.
The Telegraph disclosed in April how he had a controlling hand in the organisation that awarded his sister’s firm potential access to NHS contracts. He was listed as one of two "persons with significant control" over NHS Shared Business Services, which in 2019 awarded his sister’s company, Topwood Ltd, a place as a potential supplier to NHS trusts.