The health secretary’s appointment of a close personal friend as an aide would have gone through an “incredibly rigorous” process, a minister has claimed.
Questions about Matt Hancock’s appointment of former lobbyist Gina Coladangelo surfaced after pictures in The Sun newspaper appeared to show the health secretary, who is married, kissing the aide in his office.
The Sunday Times reported last year that Mr Hancock had failed to declare he had appointed Ms Coladangelo as an aide and later gave her a role on the board of the Department of Health. She is listed on the department’s website as a non-executive director.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he would not comment on something that is an “entirely personal” matter.
But he added: “In terms of rules, anyone who’s been appointed has to go through an incredibly rigorous process in government. Whatever the rules are, the rules will have to be followed.”
Pressed again on whether the rules had been followed with regards to the appointment, Mr Shapps replied: “I think it’s a bit of a red herring in this case. I think it’s really a personal story, so I don’t intend to comment on somebody’s personal life.”
He added that the health secretary “has been working very hard rolling out this vaccine programme”.
Ms Coladangelo’s LinkedIn profile says she has been working at the department since September 2020 and was at Oxford University at the same time as the health secretary.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “This appointment was made in the usual way and followed correct procedure.”
The photo has also raised questions about whether Mr Hancock broke the government’s lockdown laws.
At the time the picture was reportedly taken on 6 May, hugging anyone outside your household or bubble was not allowed.
Speaking to Sky News in May last year after it was revealed that Professor Neil Ferguson, who was then one of the government’s top scientific advisers, had broken lockdown rules, Mr Hancock said he was “speechless”.
Asked if he thought Prof Ferguson should have been prosecuted, the health secretary said: “It’s a matter for the police, as a government minister I’m not allowed to get involved in the operational decisions of police matters.
“But I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them.”
Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner, who has analysed COVID restrictions closely over the course of the pandemic, said on social media “there is an important question of whether the health secretary broke his own lockdown laws”.
“Gatherings of 2 or more indoors were illegal except for permitted purposes… if they were at work, they might argue this fell within the work exception but I think – especially for health secretary – that’s not a good argument”.
“For the rest of the population, indoor relationships with someone you don’t live with were (bizarrely) illegal until 17 May 2021.”
Labour said the government had questions to answer, with a spokesperson saying: “Ministers, like everyone, are entitled to a private life.
“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 government needs to be open and transparent about whether there are any conflicts of interests or rules that have been broken.”