“It’s a matter for the police.” These were the words of a “speechless” Matt Hancock, the UK’s health minister, when being interviewed on British television about the discovery that a leading epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson, was having an extra-marital affair, breaking Covid-19 regulations that the scientist in question had helped draw up. The health secretary’s comments mirrored the justifiable anger many felt at Mr Ferguson’s actions, during a time when those sticking to coronavirus measures were unable to say goodbye to dying relatives, or attend the births of their children.
Mr Ferguson’s affair, which came to light in May last year, has now been overshadowed by news that the minister himself has been doing the same with a colleague, Gina Coladangelo. Mr Hancock’s actions broke Covid-19 regulations that were in place at the time and, in the minds of many, the high ethical standards to which ministers should be held.
Recent polls suggest the public is losing patience with Mr Hancock
News of the health secretary’s actions will be devastating to his, and Ms Coladangelo’s family, respectively – both are married with children. But the most serious repercussions could be to public health, as fatigued Britons start to see little reason to stick to regulations that are routinely ignored by those who created them. By doing what he did, Mr Hancock was either placing himself above the law, or making the assessment that his measures were ineffective and not worth obeying. Neither will go down well with the millions of people separated from loved ones for months.
Beyond health, the case has other details that could end Mr Hancock’s political career. There are accusations that he broke the ministerial code on relationships, which requires a minister’s professional dealings with colleagues to be “proper and appropriate”, as well as the code on conflicts of interest. Mr Hancock, who has known Ms Coladangelo since university, is also accused of rewarding contracts and even jobs to personal acquaintances.
In normal times, a senior public official would justifiably be held to account for such actions. The breach seems even more egregious today, after months of Mr Hancock being one of the most recognisable faces of a government that is meting out the most severe changes to life in the UK since the Second World War.
Most politicians deserve credit for being a crucial part of response to the pandemic. Crises place huge stress on those responsible for public safety, and the burden of governing during one will always reveal a person’s contradictions. Most in the UK seem to be tolerant of the difficult job facing the government. Despite a number of setbacks and poor decisions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government remains popular, and has even climbed in opinion polls over the past few weeks. But the most recent polls could point to the public losing patience, particularly with Mr Hancock. A survey from pollster YouGov found that almost 50 per cent of participants thought he should resign. Only 25 per cent though he should remain in his role, with the remainder being unsure.
There has been much commentary in the UK about the extent to which the moral standards British voters demand of their politicians have changed in recent times. Thirty years ago, extra-marital affairs commonly led to immediate resignations. This rarely happens nowadays. But Mr Hancock’s current situation shows something that remains as true as ever. Voters despise hypocrisy.