Covid-19 restrictions will not start to ease until March, and only if Britain’s vaccination programme stays on track, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday.
Mr Raab told Sky News the government wanted to end the national lockdown as soon as possible.
“By early spring, hopefully by March, we’ll be in a position to make those decisions,” he said. “I think it’s right to say we won’t do it all in one big bang. As we phase out the national lockdown, I think we’ll end up phasing through a tiered approach.”
England was plunged into its third national lockdown on January 5, with non-essential shops shut and the closure of schools to all but a minority of pupils.
Ministers initially suggested that the lockdown could be eased in mid-February, with a review of the rules due this week, but the legislation allows it to continue until the end of March.
That has prompted concerns from many Conservative MPs who have called on Downing Street to provide a road map out of lockdown in the coming months.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has set a target of giving 14m mostly elderly and vulnerable people an initial dose of coronavirus vaccine by the middle of February.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said it was not the case that on February 14 “with one bound we are free”.
He pointed out that a Covid-19 patient was being admitted to hospital every 30 seconds and that a quarter of those being hospitalised were under 55
However, he said he did not think people would have to wait until the autumn until restrictions were loosened.
“There will be a balance . . . this is going to be a progressive improvement as we get more coronavirus vaccination supply.”
Mr Raab said the target for vaccinating all adults remained September after the Sunday Telegraph reported that every adult in Britain would be vaccinated by the end of June. “If we can do it faster then great, but that is the road map,” he said.
Sir Simon said he thought 1.5m vaccinations would have been carried out in the last week, up from 1m in the previous week.
“Everybody is coming together to get this done, we are off to a very strong start,” he told the BBC. “We are vaccinating four times faster than people are catching coronavirus.”
Sir Steven also revealed that 50,000 NHS staff were off work with coronavirus-related reasons.
On Friday, Mr Johnson announced the closure of the air corridors that allowed people to enter the UK without having taken a Covid-19 test, meaning that all incomers must now quarantine for up to 10 days.
The Sunday Times reported that those limited arrivals will now have to quarantine in hotels — rather than private homes — with officials using GPS and facial recognition technology to monitor isolation.
Mr Raab did not deny that such a plan was being drawn up, saying: “We'll consider all the measures in the realm.”