England’s roadmap out of lockdown aims to move to “personal responsibility” rather than having social distancing laws, Matt Hancock has said.
The Health Secretary said restrictions “that get in the way of normal life” cannot continue indefinitely, following Boris Johnson's four-stage exit plan revealed on Monday.
While a return to what will remind many of normal life could be on the cards in June, Mr Hancock warned society will have to learn to live with Covid-19 and everyone must take some responsibility to protect themselves.
“Patrick Vallance (chief scientific adviser) was clear yesterday that mask wearing in winter is one of the examples of things that might need to stay,” he told Times Radio.
“What we want to do is get rid of the social distancing-type laws that get in the way of normal life and move to personal responsibility, rather than laws dictating how all of us live our daily lives.
“But it is also clear that eradication is unfortunately not possible with this disease, so we are going to have to learn to live with it.
“In the same way that for instance we live with flu, but we don’t let flu get in the way of living our lives.
“But we do vaccinate against it every year – in the case of flu we vaccinate those who are most vulnerable – and so I expect to have that vaccination programme as a regular feature of future life.”
He added that he hopes people will be able to hug friends and family from May 17.
When asked about when people could hug their loved ones, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Well I hope that will happen from May 17, that you will be able to go and stay away. That is some time off.
“You and I, both of our parents live in Cheshire, and to be able to go and see them and stay overnight – not before May 17.
“So I appreciate that that is some time, but that is the earliest that we thought it was safe to be able to take that step.”
Boris Johnson meanwhile said spring and summer in England will usher in changes to make lives “incomparably better.”
The Prime Minister defended his “cautious but also irreversible” approach to relaxing restrictions, arguing he will not be “buccaneering” with people’s lives.
Despite billing his plans as a “one-way road to freedom”, he admitted he cannot guarantee that the vaccination programme will prevent restrictions from ever returning.
His tentative schedule for easing restrictions will be followed on Tuesday afternoon by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon detailing her own plan for easing Scotland’s lockdown.
The PM accepted that scientific modelling suggested that lifting measures will increase Covid-19 cases and ultimately deaths, but said restrictions cannot continue indefinitely.
In the first step of the “road map”, all pupils in England’s schools are expected to return to class from March 8, with wider use of face masks and testing in secondaries.
Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will also be permitted from that date.
A further easing will take place on March 29, when the school Easter holidays begin, with larger groups of up to six people or two households allowed to gather in parks and gardens.
But progressing along the schedule will depend on meeting four tests:
The success of the vaccine rollout
Evidence of vaccine efficacy
An assessment of new variants
Keeping infection rates below a level that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS
The other points when restrictions may be eased at the earliest are:
April 12, when shops, hairdressers, nail salons, libraries, outdoor attractions and outdoor hospitality venues such as beer gardens may reopen.
May 17, when two households or groups of up to six people may be allowed to mix indoors and crowds of up to 10,000 in the largest venues will be allowed at performances and sporting events.
June 21, when all remaining restrictions on social contact could be lifted, larger events can go ahead and nightclubs could finally reopen.
Social-distancing guidelines will be reviewed "as soon as possible” and no later than step three, the measures have prevented loved ones from hugging for nearly a year.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing: “Thanks to the vaccinations there is light ahead, leading us to a spring and a summer, which I think will be seasons of hope, looking and feeling incomparably better for us all.”
But with some Conservative lockdown-sceptics arguing that the plans are too cautious, Mr Johnson denied he was being a “gloomster”, as figures showed there have been 140,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
However, the PM acknowledged he “can’t guarantee it’s going to be irreversible” with new variants posing a threat to his plans.
The roadmap will be put to a Commons vote before the House rises for Easter in late March.