The security camera that captured the UK’s former health secretary kissing his aide breached an informal ban on monitoring equipment inside ministers’ officers, the government said on Monday.
Matt Hancock quit his job leading the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic at the weekend for breaking social distancing rules after he was filmed hugging and kissing his aide by the security camera in his office.
Images from the camera were leaked to The Sun newspaper, raising concerns about security at the highest levels of government.
Julia Lopez, a Cabinet office minister, told MPs on Monday that the camera was not “covert”. A camera is clearly visible in old pictures of Mr Hancock’s office just before he moved into the offices in 2017.
“It’s general policy there are no cameras sited in ministerial offices,” she told MPs. “This is an outlier in that regard.”
Ms Lopez’s comment that the camera was “not covert” was greeted with disbelief by some MPs. “If that’s true, he [Mr Hancock] must be the stupidest man on earth,” said Chris Bryant, an opposition Labour Party MP.
The security camera in Mr Hancock’s former office has been disabled as the government starts its inquiry into the leak.
Mr Hancock’s successor Sajid Javid said that senior ministers should not have security cameras in their offices as a general rule.
“I've never known that in the other five departments that I've run and I'm not really sure why there was one here, but I'm sure there will be more to this as the whole incident is investigated.”
Former ministers who worked in Mr Hancock’s department also said they were unaware of the camera.
Ms Lopez declined to respond to key questions about the affair – including who authorised the cameras, who had access to the footage and how long it was kept before it was wiped from the system.
She said she hoped the questions would be answered by the inquiry.
The Mail on Sunday newspaper reported at the weekend that the footage was touted to news organisations by a department insider. In one of the messages, the unidentified person said that the footage was wiped from department systems after 30 days.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said there were no security cameras in his office.
“I think there is an important principle here about the need for ministers and civil servants who often are handling very sensitive material and information to have a safe space within which to work”, he said.
Concerns have been raised about potential state-level spying through technology, with government offices subject to regular security sweeps for hidden devices.
Cameras used in the UK’s Department of Health are manufactured by the Chinese company Hikvision, whose products are currently under review by authorities in the US over security concerns.
Questions were asked earlier this year after a £2.6 million ($3.6m) renovation of a press briefing room in Downing Street was revealed to have been carried out by a Russian-owned company.