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U.K. Health Secretary Quits Over Breach of Social-Distance Guidelines With Aide

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LONDON—U.K. Health Secretary

Matt Hancock

resigned, causing disruption at the top of the government’s pandemic response as Britain grapples with an upswing in Covid-19 cases caused by the Delta variant.

Mr. Hancock tendered his resignation to Prime Minister

Boris Johnson

on Saturday, according to an exchange of letters released by Downing Street.

His departure followed allegations of an affair with an aide and the publication of images of the couple together inside the health ministry that were published in the Sun newspaper.

Mr. Hancock, who is married, came under pressure to quit from lawmakers because, in conducting the alleged affair with a woman he had known from their university days, he appeared to have broken social-distancing guidelines that his department enforced.

The main opposition Labour Party also questioned the use of taxpayers’ money to employ a friend of Mr. Hancock’s as a paid part-time adviser to the health ministry.

“I understand the enormous sacrifices that everybody in this country has made,” Mr. Hancock said in a video message on his verified

Twitter

account.

“Those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that’s why I’ve got to resign.”

Mr. Johnson had initially accepted the health secretary’s apology over the matter and kept Mr. Hancock in the post. He said in a letter accepting Mr. Hancock’s resignation that he was sorry he decided to quit and that he should be proud of his achievements while in office.

“It has been your task to deal with a challenge greater than that faced by any of your predecessors,” Mr. Johnson said. Downing Street said late Saturday that

Sajid Javid,

a former Treasury chief, would succeed Mr. Hancock as health secretary.

Mr. Hancock’s departure comes as the U.K. deals with a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases caused by the Delta variant. The World Health Organization and multiple countries, including the U.S. and U.K., have designated Delta a variant of concern warranting extra surveillance because it is likely more transmissible than earlier versions of the coronavirus.

The U.K. this month postponed plans to drop all remaining public-health restrictions until July 19 following the surge in Covid-19. Data show the seven-day average of newly reported cases in the U.K. topped 14,000 Saturday. That is seven times the rate reported in early May and the highest average tally since February. Public-health officials have logged more than 111,000 confirmed cases of Delta. The WHO said this week that the variant has been detected in 85 countries, including the U.S.

Mr. Hancock was at the helm of the department of health and social care in the U.K. throughout the pandemic. The country suffered one of the worst death tolls in Europe, but also one of the speediest vaccine rollouts. Sixty percent of adults are fully vaccinated and more than 80% have received at least one vaccine dose.

Widespread vaccination means the Delta variant hasn’t caused the same level of severe illness and death witnessed during earlier phases of the pandemic, scientists and public-health officials said.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a four-week extension to the country’s Covid-19 restrictions Monday as the country deals with an increase in Delta variant infections. WSJ’s Jason Douglas explains what that could mean for the global effort to contain the virus. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Write to Jason Douglas at [email protected]

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