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Tue 21 September 2021

Rebecca Hilsenrath appears to be the only senior figure in Whitehall to have resigned over an apparent violation of Coronavirus restrictions, David Hencke reports

The chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – an independent body “promoting and upholding equality and human rights ideals and laws across England, Scotland and Wales” – has suddenly resigned from three public positions, three months after an investigation was launched into whether she had twice breached Coronavirus lockdown rules by visiting her holiday home in Wales.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, with a £170,000 pay and pensions package, appears to be the sole senior Whitehall figure to have quit her job following an alleged contravention of COVID-19 restrictions.

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor, refused to quit after he took a 500-mile round trip to Durham during the first lockdown in May 2020. He later told the public from the Downing Street rose garden that he drove to Barnard Castle, a tourist spot in the area, to test his eyesight due to having COVID-19.

Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Margaret Ferrier also refused to stand down from Parliament after travelling back by train from the House of Commons to her constituency while showing symptoms of COVID-19. The Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP was suspended from the party and later charged by police with culpable and reckless conduct over her alleged breach of lockdown rules.

Rebecca Hilsenrath was put on gardening leave by the EHRC in January after The Times disclosed that she had allegedly breached lockdown rules over Christmas. Byline Times later revealed allegations that she also breached the rules in March – following a complaint from Louise Hughes, an independent county councillor in Gwynedd, where Hilsenrath’s holiday home is located.

Hilsenrath apologised on Twitter about her alleged breach of the restrictions over Christmas and claimed that she travelled before lockdown “in the belief it was allowed under the rules at that time”.

As well as resigning over Easter as chief executive of the EHRC, Hilsenrath quit as a board member of the Office for Legal Complaints and as chair of the Association of Chief Executives.

In an internal memo sent to EHRC staff, its chair Baroness Kishwer Falkner, said: “Rebecca Hilsenrath has resigned as chief executive of the Commission and left us with effect from yesterday… I have put in place interim arrangements and I am enormously grateful to the executive team for stepping up over the last three months so smoothly and professionally.”

Falkner praised Hilsenrath’s work for the Commission over the past seven years as chief executive and chief legal officer.

The ECHR would not comment further on her sudden resignation or the results of an internal inquiry to investigate whether she had indeed breached lockdown.

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