Poor Matt Hancock, as Her Majesty the Queen might describe him.
The Health Secretary woke up this morning to find himself splashed across the front page of the Sun having been caught on camera in a “steamy clinch” with his aide Gina Coladangelo.
The grainy images, reportedly from 6 May 2021, when the rest of the political bubble was focused on that day’s local elections, appear to support claims from a “Whitehall whistle-blower” that Hancock and Coladangelo were having an affair, something which was allegedly an open secret in the Department of Health. Both are married to other people.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was forgiving of his colleague on the broadcast round this morning, insisting, “What happens in people’s personal lives and personal relationships is a matter for them.” Hancock himself issued a statement later in the day, acknowledging that he breached social distancing guidance and apologising, while also saying he “would be grateful for privacy for my family on this personal matter”.
I have a fair degree of sympathy for this view. Relationships are complicated and nobody other than the four people directly involved knows what the rules and dynamics of these specific marriages were. Moreover, a politician’s private life doesn’t necessarily tell you much about their suitability for office. Life is messy, every one of us has made decisions we are not proud of, and if, in the middle of a pandemic, the Health Secretary wasn’t able to remain entirely faithful to his marriage vows, that’s not really anyone’s business except his own, his wife’s, and his alleged girlfriend’s.
Or it wouldn’t be, had Hancock not spent the past 15 months inserting himself into the private lives of every citizen in the country.
At the time when Hancock was snapped with his arms and mouth all over Coladangelo, the UK was still in the opening phases of unlocking, and such hugging was against the rules. It was illegal in England for two people from different households to meet indoors, unless they were in a bubble. As I have written before, England’s lockdown rules have amounted to a de facto sex ban for millions of people who do not live with a partner and aren’t eligible to form a bubble. From 23 March 2020 when lockdown was first imposed until 17 May 2021, there were just a few months when intimacy between non-cohabiting adults was legal.
As Health Secretary, Hancock was directly responsible for this peculiarly English state of affairs. Other countries made specific exemptions to their Covid restrictions for romantic partners, but the UK government refused to acknowledge that single people existed and might have a right to physical affection. Hancock has repeatedly been asked about the plight of separated couples during the pandemic, and has emphatically come down on the side of abstinence. Last September, he warned people not to have sex outside “established relationships” (stressing that his own relationship with his wife obviously counted). In February, when he was challenged about the sex ban for people who don’t live together, he entirely dismissed their concerns.
It is the height of hypocrisy for Hancock to have been enjoying the kind of intimacy he was personally denying to others.
Not only that, but Hancock made his views on people who break lockdown rules for romance clear at the start of the pandemic. On 6 May 2020 (exactly one year before his photographed kiss with Coladangelo, according to the Sun), Hancock was airing his contempt for Professor Neil Ferguson, the pro-lockdown Imperial College epidemiologist who was caught travelling across London at the start of the pandemic to see his girlfriend. Hancock said he was “speechless” at Ferguson’s “extraordinary” behaviour, and agreed that it was right for the scientist to resign as a government adviser.
At the time, Ferguson’s fling shocked the nation because of the tremendous sacrifices the rest of the country was making to halt the spread of Covid-19. There was outrage that one of the fiercest proponents of lockdown could insist everyone else cut off all social contact – including with romantic partners – and then proceed to do whatever he liked. Hancock’s hypocrisy a year later is no different.
There are other aspects of this story that will no doubt capture imaginations. The fact that Coladangelo, a friend from Oxford University, was hired by Hancock under controversial circumstances and is paid taxpayer money for her role warrants investigation, while it will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister – himself a serial adulterer – reacts to his Health Secretary’s transgression.
But in the week that Hancock has hinted that Covid restrictions will be back this winter, presaging misery for millions who face being torn apart from their loved ones once again, it is the brazen double standard that should enrage us most. Now that he has been caught breaking his own heavy-handed rules, he has no right to plead privacy.
A front-page tabloid “Gotcha” splash feels like the sort of tawdry mid-Nineties sex scandal the country should have moved on from. Surely, we are grown-up enough to stay out of the Health Secretary’s marital complexities and personal life. If only he had the decency to stay out of ours.