Ministers faced renewed calls yesterday to end lockdown curbs two weeks early after yet more 'encouraging' Covid data.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said hospitalisation and death rates remain low – meaning England is 'on track' to lift restrictions on July 19.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak agreed, saying it was now his 'hope and expectation' that this date would mark the end of coronavirus curbs.
But former Cabinet minister Liam Fox pressed the Government to go faster. He said that given the latest data, the new target for scrapping Covid restrictions should be July 5 – the 'review point' set by Boris Johnson when he delayed the initial unlocking from this past Monday.
Matt Hancock said hospitalisation and death rates remain low – meaning England is 'on track' to lift restrictions on July 19
Dr Fox said there was mounting evidence that the successful vaccine rollout has broken the link between Covid cases and deaths. 'All along we have been told it is about data, not dates,' he said.
'We need to look at that data, and if we can relax earlier – and get some of those industries like weddings and travel moving earlier – then we should.'
He called on ministers to move 'as soon as possible', adding: 'A fixation with dates is not sensible.'
Official UK figures yesterday showed daily Covid cases have risen to 11,625 – up almost a third in a week, and the highest figure since mid-February.
Rishi Sunak said it was now his 'hope and expectation' that July 19 would mark the end of coronavirus curbs
However, other key figures remain very low. Although another 225 Covid patients were admitted to hospital, this remains far below the figures seen at the start of the year, which regularly topped 4,000 each day.
Yesterday's Covid-related death toll was 27 – but the average figure has been just 13 over the past seven days, compared with a peak average of 1,281 in January.
Mr Hancock said yesterday: 'We are seeing that growth in case rates is slowing. Thankfully, the number of hospitalisations, whilst rising, is not rising very quickly. And thankfully, even more, the number of people dying from Covid remains very, very low.'
He added: 'We are on track for the opening on July 19 and we will watch vigilantly, we will look at the data in particular at the start of next week.
Liam Fox argues the new target for scrapping Covid restrictions should be July 5
'The data over the last week or so has been encouraging, especially looking at the number of people who are dying – that is staying very, very low.'
Mr Hancock refused to rule out the return of curbs this winter, saying the possible combination of flu and Covid posed a challenge for the NHS. However, the Health Secretary claimed booster Covid jabs would greatly reduce the risk of further lockdowns.
Mr Sunak also raised hopes for next month. Speaking in the Commons, the Chancellor said: 'My hope and expectation is that we lift... restrictions on July 19. By that point, we will have done what we set out to do, which is to get extra jabs in more people's arms to provide us with that extra level of protection.'
Downing Street confirmed yesterday that ministers will review the latest Covid data this weekend before announcing next Monday whether Freedom Day can be brought forward to July 5. Mr Johnson postponed it from June 21 amid rising numbers of Delta variant cases.
The four-week delay was designed to allow time for more vaccinations – and to gather more data on whether our inoculation programme has broken the link between cases and hospitalisations.
The Prime Minister told Cabinet yesterday that he was 'constantly reviewing the data' – but stressed that he wanted the lifting of restrictions to be 'irreversible'.
A Whitehall source said it remained 'unlikely' that restrictions would be lifted as early as July 5, as ministers want to have offered vaccinations to all over-18s before unlocking. That process is not likely to be complete until the middle of next month.