Dear Shielder, your time is up. No more sick pay. No more bunking off.Lots of Love, Matt

Hancock lifts Covid-19 restrictions in line with economy – sorry, science

John Crace Sketch 
How much does Boris Johnson hate Matt Hancock? I’m asking because it’s clear the health secretary is completely burnt out. The smiles and the Tigger-like warmth are all gone. All that’s left is a desiccated shell that could crumble at any minute. A man reduced to muttering platitudes while scowling at the television cameras.

A kinder, more sensitive boss – the type that Matt was about to insist were omnipresent and would be falling over themselves to welcome back staff who had been shielding – would have told Hancock to take some time off a while ago. A chance to catch up on lost sleep and reacquaint himself with his family. After all, it’s not exactly as if he would be missed.

Instead, Matt found himself sent out on another hospital pass of a Downing Street press conference. After the usual nonsense about “our plan is working”, Hancock got down to the nitty-gritty.

He wanted to say a huge thank-you to the 2.2m people who had been shielding for the past three months, but would shortly be writing to them all individually to tell them their time was up.

“Dear Shielder,

“As of 6 July, we want you to reacquaint yourself with the outside world, so feel free to hang out in groups of up to six people. Have someone to stay overnight if you like. Because from August 1, the fun stops. That’s when the food boxes, the medicine drops and the statutory sick pay will end. Anyone found bunking off from then will be on their own. So prepare to get your compromised immune systems back to work. Lots of love, Matt.”

Predictably, most of the questioners were sceptical that not all those who were shielding would be quite so thrilled by the news. Not because they weren’t keen to meet up with friends and families again, but because they didn’t trust the government to relax the guidelines in a sensible way.

Matt just glared his disapproval. Though it might have looked as if the government was deciding policy by focus group, it was actually committed to doing everything in line with the science. And to prove his point, he handed over to deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries. “Thank you for guiding us through this crisis, Jenny,” he added. Which was a bit like thanking a wonky satellite that had been transmitting faulty data for the past three months.

But Harries was determined to do her best to help. The infection rates had now fallen from 1 in 400 to 1 in 1,700, so you could meet 1,700 people before you were in danger of getting the coronavirus. Even my basic maths could see the logical problem with that. Then Jenny became positively Ayn Rand.

“Work is good for you,” she continued, so it was the government’s job to push shielders through the pain barrier. Yes, some people might still think that a 1 in 1,700 chance of catching a disease that could kill you if you had underlying health issues was a risk they were unwilling to take, but once they had re-experienced the joys of stacking shelves at night, they would see the error of their ways.

Things really began to fall apart, though, when it was gently pointed out that this was all a bit previous. Announcing the end of the shielding programme the day before the government was about to make wholesale changes to other lockdown guidelines really didn’t make sense.

Given that many people were already treating the 2-metre rule as a 1-metre rule, a switch to a 1-metre rule would be the end of any kind of social distancing for some. And with travel restrictions being eased in line with the focus groups and the economy – sorry, the science, there was clearly no way of anyone knowing if the changes would lead to an increase in the rate and number of infections. So the end of shielding could be a death sentence for the shielders.

Now Matt’s eyes narrowed. A man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This was supposed to be a “good news” press conference and he was sick and tired of everyone being so negative. He didn’t care if the director of the World Health Organisation thought some countries were being too cavalier in unlocking too quickly. He was always guided by the science. And where the science disagreed, he was all in favour of following the science that took him places he wanted to go.

He was fed up with people laughing at the UK’s mishandling of the coronavirus, so he was willing to take a punt on relaxing the rules to make us more like other countries. And if people started dying, then we could always lock down again. By the end, Matt looked as if he was going to crack completely.

Just as well no one asked him about his nonexistent “world-beating” app.