UPDATE 2-UK health minister 'very sorry' after kiss breaches COVID guidelines

* Hancock says "very sorry"

* Hancock pictured kissing top aide

* Opposition Labour: He should be sacked

* Hancock admits breaching distancing rules (Adds Labour comments)

LONDON, June 25 (Reuters) - British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Friday he was "very sorry" for breaching social distancing guidelines, after pictures of him embracing his top aide - a friend hired last year - appeared on the front page of the Sun newspaper.

"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."

The 42-year-old 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, taken in his department last month, 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 Boris Johnson's government.

The opposition Labour Party called on Johnson to sack Hancock, saying his position was "hopelessly untenable."

"If Matt Hancock has been secretly having a relationship with an adviser in his office - who he personally appointed to a taxpayer-funded role - it is a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest," said Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds.

"The charge sheet against Matt Hancock includes wasting taxpayers' money, leaving care homes exposed and now being accused of breaking his own COVID rules."

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 picture of Hancock, who is married, and the aide was taken last month. Reuters could not independently verify the image.

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 12:41

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