Boris Johnson has confirmed that the lockdown will be lifted “in stages” as he underlined the need to move “cautiously” out of restrictions.
The Prime Minister is expected to set out his roadmap out of the national shutdown on Monday, with schools expected to be the first thing to open.
On a visit to a mass vaccination centre in Cwmbran, south Wales, Mr Johnson told reporters: “I certainly think that we need to go in stages.
“We need to go cautiously.”
He also hinted that it could be a while until pubs and restaurants reopen, saying: “You have to remember from last year that we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that we did because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality.
“I know there’s a lot of understandable speculation in the papers and people coming up with theories about what we’re going to do, what we’re going to say, and about the rates of infection, and so on.
“I would just advise everybody just wait, we’ll try and say as much as we can on that.”
Asked if he agreed with SAGE expert Professor Dame Angela McLean that any unlocking should be based on “data, not dates”, he said: “I do think that’s absolutely right.
“That’s why we’ll be setting out what we can on Monday about the way ahead and it’ll be based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach to coming out of lockdown in such a way to be irreversible.
“We want to be going one way from now on, based on the incredible vaccination rollout that you’re seeing in Cwmbran.”
His comments came after Prof McLean, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Ministry of Defence, told MPs that the Government should focus on data rather than fixating on dates for lifting lockdown.
She told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “The important issue is to really watch very closely what is happening, so that if infections start to increase and that we do everything we can to decide whether it is a good moment to take another step in unlocking.
“Let’s use data, not dates.”
She said hospital occupancy and the take up of vaccinations amongst the most vulnerable were also key factors.
Other factors to be considered include hospital occupancy and what would happen to at-risk people who are not protected should there be a large epidemic among younger people, she said.
She added: “I think it has been stated pretty clearly that each step should be irrevocable.
“That means we have to be extremely careful, before we add another unlocking.”
However Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on the Government’s virus modelling panel, expressed optimism that the UK could go for “earlier unlocking” due to the success of the vaccine rollout.
He told MPs: “I completely agree that we don’t want to be overly focused on dates, not at all. We want to be focused on data. But the point I’d make about that is the data are going really well.
“The vaccination rollout is, I think, exceeding most people’s expectations, it’s going very well.”
He added: “The transmission blocking potential is key. But so, of course, is its actual ability to protect against death and disease, and to keep people out of hospital, and those numbers are looking really good.
“My conclusion from that is if you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking.”
Speculation is mounting that the Prime Minister will announce a staged lifting of restrictions, with outdoor exercise and socialising likely to follow the reopening of schools.
Office workers could continue working from home for some time, but parts of the economy such as holiday lets and larger hotels will reopen in April, the Mail reported.
Outdoor leisure, open-air gyms and sports such as tennis could resume in April, though pubs, bars and restaurants would have to wait until May and a full pub reopening in early June.