Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) listens as Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock gives a COVID-19 update statement to a hybrid, socially distanced session in the House of Commons in London. AFP
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.
"I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances," he said. "I have let people down and am very sorry."
Johnson said on Friday he considered the matter to now be 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.
The opposition Labour Party questioned whether he had also breached the ministerial code by hiring a woman who had been a friend for years - reigniting charges of cronyism that have previously hit Johnson's Conservative government.
"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."
The case had echoes of an incident last year when Johnson's then most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, also broke the rules at the height of the pandemic, sparking fury across the country and accusations that Johnson's government believed itself to be above the law.
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. read more
And the country's spending watchdog has criticised the government for the way it awarded billions of pounds of contracts at the height of the pandemic, after some multi-million pound contracts went to companies with links to ministers, lawmakers and officials.
The health ministry has said it needed to move quickly.
The Times newspaper said Johnson's approach to criticism and wrongdoing 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.
Hancock, who is married, has said he is now focused on getting the country out of the pandemic and has asked for privacy for his family.