UPDATE 3-UK health minister sorry for breaching COVID guidelines, PM says 'matter closed'

* Hancock says "very sorry"

* Hancock pictured kissing top aide

* Opposition Labour: He should be sacked

* Johnson stands by Hancock-spokesman (Adds PM Johnson's response)

LONDON, June 25 (Reuters) - British Health Secretary Matt Hancock apologized on Friday for breaching social distancing guidelines after pictures appeared of him embracing his top aide, and the prime minister said he believed the matter was now closed.

Photographs published on the front page of the Sun showed Hancock kissing the woman - a friend hired for a taxpayer-funded role - in his office.

"I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances," Hancock said.

"I have let people down and am very sorry. 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."

A spokesman for Boris Johnson said the prime minister had accepted Hancock's apology and had full confidence in him.

"(He) considers the matter closed," he said.

The opposition Labour Party has called on Johnson to sack Hancock.

"This matter is definitely not closed, despite the government's attempts to cover it up," a spokesperson said.

"Matt Hancock appears to have been caught breaking the laws he created while having a secret relationship with an aide he appointed to a taxpayer-funded job."

Hancock, 42, has been at the center of the government's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, often appearing on television to tell the public to follow strict rules and to defend his department against criticism of its response to the crisis.

The photographs raised more questions about Hancock's judgment, both in appointing a friend to a taxpayer-funded role and in breaking guidance imposed on millions of people by Johnson's government.

Under fire for his handling of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hancock was found in February to have acted unlawfully by not revealing details of contracts signed during the health crisis.

Hancock also said last year that it was right that a government scientist resigned after he broke COVID rules by meeting a partner.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid said the pictures of Hancock, who is married, and the aide were taken in his department last month.

The popular daily newspaper did not say how it obtained the security camera images, but it cited a whistleblower as commenting on the relationship.

The Sun 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.

Hancock has been criticized for his department's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in the early months when it struggled to deliver testing and protective equipment for hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients.

Asked about the appropriateness of appointing friends to positions in government, Transport Minister Grant Shapps told 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. (Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)

06/25/2021 13:18

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