By Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) -Matt Hancock, the former health minister who led Britain's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was suspended by the ruling Conservative Party after he signed up for jungle-based reality television show "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here".
Hancock, who quit government after he was filmed kissing an adviser in breach of lockdown rules, will join pop singer Boy George, ex-England rugby union player Mike Tindall and England soccer player Jill Scott in the line-up for the hit programme.
The long-running ITV show sees celebrities undertake challenges such as eating insects and being enclosed with snakes, before contestants are eliminated by public votes.
The Conservative Party said it had withdrawn the whip, meaning he was effectively suspended from the parliamentary party, after hearing he would be going to Australia to take part in the show when parliament was sitting.
"Following a conversation with Matt Hancock, I have considered the situation and believe this is a matter serious enough to warrant suspension of the whip with immediate effect," Chief Whip Simon Hart, who handles party discipline, said on Tuesday.
There was also a less than enthusiastic response to the news in West Suffolk, east England - the area represented by Hancock in parliament.
Andy Drummond, deputy chair of the local Conservative association, said he was "looking forward to him eating a kangaroo's penis", according to PA Media.
The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group also criticised the move.
"Matt Hancock isn’t a ‘celebrity’, he's the former health secretary who oversaw the UK having one of the highest death tolls in the world from COVID-19 whilst breaking his own lockdown rules," said spokesperson Lobby Akinnola.
"If he had any respect for the families like mine, he would be sharing his private emails with the COVID Inquiry, not eating bugs on TV."
Hancock, 44, was at the centre of Britain's fight against COVID as health secretary, routinely appearing on television to tell people to follow strict rules and to defend the government's response.
But he quit in June 2021 after the married minister was caught on security video footage breaking social distancing rules by kissing and embracing an aide in his office.
Hancock backed Rishi Sunak to become prime minister, but he was not rewarded with a ministerial position, and reports said he does not expect to serve in government again.
Sunak's spokesman said the prime minister believed lawmakers should be working hard for their constituents while Britain was facing a cost of living crisis.
Asked if Sunak would watch Hancock on the show, the spokesman said: "I think that's unlikely."
British media quoted sources close to Hancock saying his appearance would "show the human side" of politicians, and he would use his time in the jungle to promote his dyslexia campaign.
Hancock is not the first politician from former Prime minister Boris Johnson's government to appear on the show, which attracts more than 10 million viewers.
Nadine Dorries also had the whip suspended when she took part in 2012. Nine years later Johnson made her culture secretary.
(Reporting by Paul Sandle, Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout; editing by Michael Holden and Alex Richardson)