The UK faces tough coronavirus curbs until 2021 amid claims Boris Johnson’s personal battle with the disease has made him tentative about lifting lockdown.
Tories have suggested the PM is frightened of taking chances with the deadly virus after his own close call, despite fears the economic havoc might prove even more damaging to public health.
The pressure is intensifying on ministers to plot a way out of the crisis, but divisions have emerged between cautious ‘doves’ and hawks who believe the NHS has capacity and would prefer to loosen the draconian social distancing measures earlier.
The PM has intervened from his recuperation at Chequers to snuff out speculation about an imminent easing, with Downing Street making clear his priority is avoiding a second peak in the outbreak.
There are reports Mr Johnson’s close circle has stopped using the phrase exit strategy and instead wants to signal a next phase of lockdown, with varying levels of restrictions set to continue for the rest of the year until the virus gets ‘close to eradication’ or a vaccine is found.
The doves have been supported by grim behind-the-scenes warnings from scientists, who have advised that control of the outbreak is still so uncertain that even slight changes to the curbs on normal life could result in a disastrous flare-up.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said rushing to ease coronavirus restrictions will likely lead to a resurgence of the illness.
The warning comes as governments across the world start rolling out plans to get their economies up and running again.
Dr Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said: This is not the time to be lax. Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living for the foreseeable future.
He said governments must remain vigilant to stop the spread of the virus and the lifting of lockdowns and other social distancing measures must be done gradually and strike the right balance between keeping people healthy and allowing economies to function.
Despite concerns from health officials, some US states have announced aggressive reopening plans, while Boeing and at least one other American heavy-equipment manufacturer resumed production.
Elsewhere around the world, step-by-step reopenings are under way in Europe, where the crisis has begun to ebb in places such as Italy, Spain and Germany.
There is no prospect of lockdown measures being eased before the current period comes to an end on May 11.
However, some senior Tories have been pushing plans for an easing soon afterwards, pointing out that the NHS is still below surge capacity and could ‘run hot’ to limit the economic meltdown.