Britain faces a three-month lockdown “halfway house” after Easter, with a full reopening delayed until all over-50s have had their second dose of the vaccine, The Telegraph understands.
Ministers are considering proposals to begin reopening swathes of the economy in April under similar restrictions to those in place over the summer, with “rule of six” and social distancing measures in force in pubs and restaurants.
A return to full normality will be delayed for at least 12 to 14 weeks to allow for all over-50s to have their second dose of the vaccine, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
Ministers are keen to reopen hospitality venues in some capacity before the G7 summit in the second week of June, when the UK will host world leaders in Carbis Bay, Cornwall.
National measures will be eased in advance of the summit, allowing pubs, restaurants and tourism to begin to trade again.
Boris Johnson has previously suggested that England will return to the geographic tier system after the lockdown ends, but sources suggested the tiers may apply to the whole country rather than to specific areas.
“The appetite for regional tiers will only come if you have large swathes of the country that are significantly lower in case numbers and new variant case numbers and hospitalisations,” a source said.
Officials are understood to be planning the reopening of schools first, followed by an increase in personal freedoms, allowing meetings of friends and family outdoors, before hospitality opens with social distancing measures in place.
The plans could see a full reopening of the economy under “normal” rules by the first week of July, after the over-50s have had a second dose of the vaccine.
Downing Street distanced itself from the proposals on Sunday night. A No10 spokesman said: “It’s not a timetable under discussion”.
News of the strategy came as Matt Hancock warned it would be a “long, long, long” time before cases numbers are low enough for the lockdown to be fully relaxed.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, the Health Secretary said there was “early evidence that the lockdown is starting to bring cases down”, but cautioned that any further new variants could throw the timetable for the easing of restrictions.
“The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn’t been spotted,” he said.
Sunday’s statistics reported 30,004 new coronavirus infections in the UK. The seven-day rolling total fell by 22 per cent compared to last week.
The Health Secretary’s refusal to commit publicly to a strategy for easing lockdown added to the frustration of Tory backbenchers, who are calling for measures to be loosened as the vaccination programme protects those most vulnerable to the disease.
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Coronavirus Recovery Group, said the lockdown was causing “untold damage to people’s health, livelihoods and prospects”.
“It’s not enough to expect public compliance with prolonged severe measures, without giving some hope, and showing some optimism and light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” he said.
Another MP bemoaned the pessimistic tone of the Prime Minister during Friday’s press conference, where he announced that the Kent strain was more deadly than the original form of Covid.
“Where was Mr Optimism on Friday?” the MP asked.
“He looked gutted. It was like a hostage situation.”
On Sunday Mr Hancock said scientists were still unsure exactly how much more deadly the Kent variant is.
Sir Patrick Vallance has indicated it may kill 30 per cent more people, but stressed that the data currently available is patchy at best.
Hospitality bosses cautiously welcomed the prospect of reopening under “halfway house” restrictions from April.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said: “We understand that restrictions might need to be in place for quite a period of time after we reopen.
“In that case, given that would have a significant impact on business viability and jobs within the sector, we would want to work with the Government to support us through that reopening and recovery period as we transition out of restrictions.
“Key to that would be extending the business rates holiday and the VAT cut.”