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U.K. health minister apologizes over photo of him kissing his top aide

LONDON — Britain’s Health Minister Matt Hancock apologized on Friday and accepted he had breached social-distancing guidance after a tabloid newspaper published a picture of him kissing and embracing his top aide in his office.

“I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry,” Hancock, who is married, said in a statement. “I remain focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic, and would be grateful for privacy for my family on this personal matter.”

The minister has been under fire for his handling of the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic when his health department struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating patients.

He was found in February to have acted unlawfully by not revealing details of contracts signed during the health crisis.

The Sun said the picture of Hancock and the aide was taken last month. Reuters could not independently verify the image.

The Sun did not say how it obtained the security camera images, but it cited a whistleblower as commenting on the relationship. The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid said Hancock met the aide at Oxford University in the early 2000s. She is listed on the health department’s website as a non-executive director.

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The opposition Labour Party, which had accused the government of “cronyism” in awarding millions of pounds of contracts related to the pandemic, said Friday’s report needed to be looked into.

“Ministers, like everyone, are entitled to a private life,” a Labour spokesperson said. “However, when taxpayers’ money is involved or jobs are being offered to close friends who are in a personal relationship with a minister, then that needs to be looked into.”

The health ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Asked about the appropriateness of appointing friends to positions in government, Transport Minister Grant Shapps told U.K. broadcaster Sky News that “very strict rules” were in place.

“In terms of the rules, anyone who has been appointed has to go through an incredibly vigorous process in government,” Shapps said.

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