The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said the brakes will be put on the roadmap for reopening if unexpected events throw the UK’s recovery off course, citing the Kent variant as a moment in the pandemic that forced a change of approach.
The prime minister will set out a roadmap on Monday for the reopening of the economy and society, expected to start with all English schools returning on 8 March and some loosening of restrictions on social contact that would allow two people to meet outside.
The plan for reopening, which is expected to run to more than 50 pages and contain detailed economic and public health justifications for each measure, will be signed off by Boris Johnson and a small group of ministers at the Covid-S (Covid strategy) meeting at 11am on Sunday.
The plan will be put to cabinet on Monday morning, followed by an afternoon statement to parliament and then an address to the nation at about 7pm.
Hancock said the vaccination programme was going well but needed time to take effect. “The vaccination programme, whilst clearly going very well, will take time to be able to reach all people who have significant vulnerability, especially because we need to get the second jab to everybody,” he said.
“We’ve got time that needs to be taken to get this right. The prime minister will set out the roadmap tomorrow and he will set out the full details – taking into account that we need to take a cautious but irreversible approach, that’s the goal.”
The roadmap is expected to set out a timetable for the lifting of restrictions through until June but will be heavily caveated in the document. By the end of March there is expected to be a further relaxation on households socialising outside – which could be two households meeting or the reintroduction of the rule of six.
Discussions are still taking place about whether families may be allowed to travel for short breaks in self-catering accommodation.
Non-essential shops are expected to reopen in April, along with university campuses, but indoor hospitality is not expected to reopen until May – and is likely to still have restrictions on households mixing indoors. Sports and music events could open with restrictions by early summer, using mass testing.
Hancock said the data would drive the reopening and the prime minister would not hesitate to change course. “Whilst we want to set out a roadmap which gives people guidance in terms of how we think we will be able to do this, we also absolutely will be vigilant to the data on the way,” he said.
“We have seen throughout this pandemic that there have been moments when things haven’t gone as we expected – for instance, when the new variant was first discovered in Kent.”
A number of Tory MPs have urged the government to go much faster in the lifting of restrictions, something that scientific advisers have warned Johnson could lead to a surge in new hospitalisations.
Mark Harper, the leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said all legal restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic should be lifted by the end of April.
Harper said restrictions could not continue just because of a fear of new variants. “The way you protect against variants is our fantastic genomic sequencing programme and the fact that all of our vaccine developers will respond to changes in the virus by altering the vaccine – that’s the way you protect against variants,” he said.
“If we are going to say we are so worried about a future variant that might not be susceptible to the vaccine, that’s a recipe for never unlocking our economy and our society, and I don’t think that’s really an acceptable proposition.”