Tory MPs last night demanded Boris Johnson agree to a timetable for lifting Covid lockdown restrictions by the beginning of March.
But on a visit to flood-hit Manchester, the Prime Minister said it was too early to tell when the crippling curbs would end.
Downing Street even refused to rule out the possibility of the third national lockdown stretching beyond the spring and into summer.
The 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs is urging the PM to begin lifting the lockdown no later than the start of March and has called for the publication of a timetable to prevent further slippage.
'People must see light at the end of the tunnel and feel hope for the future and businesses need to be able to plan our recovery,' said the group's chairman Mark Harper.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a storm basin near the River Mersey in Didsbury on January 21, 2021 in Manchester, England
Government scientists yesterday urged ministers to delay the reopening of pubs and restaurants until at least May to prevent another wave of the virus. Whitehall sources suggested schools could remain shut to most pupils until after Easter.
Ministers meet today to discuss draconian travel curbs aimed at keeping out mutant Covid strains but which could also wreck the summer holiday plans of millions of families. Priti Patel last night said it was 'far too early to speculate' about whether foreign holidays would be possible this summer.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UK Hospitality trade body, said many pubs and restaurants would 'struggle to survive' if they were forced to keep their doors closed until May. She added: 'If we are forced to wait for a longer period then unfortunately there will be very little left of the hospitality sector – and the 3.2million people who work in it – to reopen at that point in May.'
In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of a return to normality this spring. Last month he said: 'We're no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring but rather the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed.'
But asked directly whether the country was 'looking at summer rather than spring' for an easing of lockdown yesterday, he replied: 'I think it's too early to say when we'll be able to lift some of some of the restrictions.'
The PM said the new variant of the disease 'does spread very fast indeed', adding: 'It unquestionably will be a very tough few weeks ahead.'
No10 also refused to rule out an extended lockdown when asked to clarify Mr Johnson's remarks.
Asked directly whether he could rule out the lockdown lasting into the summer, the PM's official spokesman said: 'We will continue to keep all of the scientific evidence and data under review.
'It remains our position that we want to ease restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so, but in order for us to do that we need to see the transmission rates of the virus come down and we need to see the pressure on the NHS reduce.'
'People should not read too much into this,' the source said. 'The PM wants to reopen as quickly as we safely can, but cases are very high and only coming down slowly – there has to be a degree of caution.'
Former Tory chief whip Mr Harper said the public now needed a timetable for easing the lockdown. Mr Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said achieving the Government's target to vaccinate the 15million most vulnerable by February 15 should clear the way for restrictions to be lifted three weeks later when the vaccines had taken effect. 'Covid causes serious harm and it's vital we control it effectively,' he said. 'But this cycle of lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage too – to people's health, livelihoods and businesses.
'Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and fully protected... the Government must start easing the restrictions.' But Government scientists and health chiefs warned it was much too soon to even contemplate easing restrictions.
Dr Vin Diwakar, medical director for the NHS in London said the pandemic was 'the biggest health emergency to face this country since the Second World War'.
Rounding on those still flouting the lockdown rules, he told a Downing Street press briefing: 'For me and my colleagues in the NHS breaking the rules.... is like switching on a light in the middle of the blackout in the Blitz.'
And Dr Marc Baguelin, of Imperial College London, who sits on a sub-group of the Government's Sage committee, said the early opening of the hospitality sector would lead to a rise in Covid cases. He told BBC Radio Four's World at One programme: 'Something of this scale, if it was to happen earlier than May, would generate a bump in transmission, which is already really bad.'
No Glasto in June for the second year
By Emma Powell for The Daily Mail
Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled for the second year running thanks to the pandemic.
The organisers say they 'moved heaven and earth' trying to make it happen but continuing uncertainty means Britain's biggest musical jamboree – attended by 200,000 fans in 2019 – cannot go ahead.
It was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary last year but had to be called off days before the first lockdown in March.
Now organisers Michael and Emily Eavis say the 2021 event cannot go ahead. Sir Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and rapper Kendrick Lamar were scheduled to headline the Pyramid stage and Diana Ross was the Sunday afternoon 'legend'.
People in the festival crowd enjoy watching Dizzee Rascal on the Pyramid stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England
Primal Scream, Dua Lipa, Manic Street Preachers and Lana Del Ray were also on the bill.
The father and daughter Eavis team said yesterday: 'With great regret, we must announce that this year's Glastonbury Festival will not take place and that this will be another enforced fallow year for us.
'In spite of our efforts to move heaven and earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the festival happen.'
They said those who secured tickets with £50 deposits in 2019 will be able to roll this over to the next event in June 2022.
Disappointed fans due to descend on Worthy Farm, Somerset, from June 23-28 said the move was understandable, but Tory MP Julian Knight, chairman of the Commons culture committee, called it a 'devastating' blow and criticised the government's failure to set up an insurance scheme to save major events.
Tom Watson, head of UK Music, said such a backup scheme 'wouldn't have cost too much' and if Britain's vaccine rollout proved a success Glastonbury would have provided an ideal celebration.
Meltdown in the high street
The embattled high street will shed 200,000 jobs in 2021 as shops close at a rate of 380 every week, experts warned yesterday.
The Centre for Retail Research said retail will endure its worst year in a quarter of a century as tax breaks and Government support are withdrawn and the impact of the lockdown bites.
The dire warning would mean that the next 12 months are even worse than 2020, which saw 16,130 shops close, or 310 every week.
The retail industry employs around three million people. Shops are fighting to protect themselves from a mountain of rent and business rates costs, even as high streets remain shut. With scientists warning yesterday that much of the high street may have to wait until May before it can reopen, industry groups fear this would decimate the retail and hospitality sector. They had hoped shops would reopen sooner given the Government plans to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups by the middle of next month.
Footfall is not expected to recover on high streets for up to two years. Professor Joshua Bamfield, head of the CRR, said: 'All sorts of damage was done last year which carries over to this year. You could argue 200,000 job losses is an underestimate.'
Eurostar passengers down 94% of passengers
Eurostar passenger numbers plummeted 94 per cent at the end of 2020, it emerged yesterday, sparking fresh calls for a joint UK-French support package.
Officials from both sides continued talks yesterday in a bid to strike a deal amid fears the Channel Tunnel firm is facing bankruptcy.
Yesterday's figures reveal that, over the course of 2020, passenger numbers were down 77 per cent, dropping from just over 11 million in 2019 to 2.5 million. The fall reached 94 per cent in the final quarter when passenger numbers were 170,010, compared with 2,624,943 in 2019.
One rescue option being discussed would involve the Bank of England providing funds from its Covid loan facility.
Industry projections suggest Eurostar, which is majority-owned by the French government, could go bust by April, although company insiders say reserves could stretch until summer. The UK Government sold its 40 per cent stake in Eurostar in 2015.
Cafes and bars could see 3.2m jobs axed
By Claire Ellicott and Sami Quadri for The Daily Mail
Hospitality chiefs issued a dire warning about the future of many businesses last night after doctors advised that the reopening of pubs and restaurants should be pushed back to May.
Industry leaders said that just one in five restaurants, pubs and bars had enough cash to get through beyond March.
It came after Sage scientists who advise the Government warned that the sector would have to stay closed until at least May to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, told Radio 4's The World At One that if the reopening of the sector was delayed until May, 3.2million could lose their jobs.
Diners in Old Compton Street, Soho, London, in August 2020
'Just one in five hospitality businesses are confident that they will have enough cash to get through beyond March,' she said. 'There is no way that businesses will be able to survive until May with no revenues coming in for seven months.
'It's a cash burn of half a billion pounds to keep the sector closed each and every month. If we are forced to wait for a longer period then unfortunately there will be little left of the hospitality sector and the 3.2million people who work in it to reopen at that point in May.'
She said she hoped that with the vaccination programme under way, there would be a 'pathway' to the lifting of restrictions.
'Otherwise I think you've got a danger that you have an impact on peoples' mental health and well-being and also their economic health and well-being,' she said.
If the sector is closed until May, she warned, there would need to be a 'significant additional injection of cash support from the Government because the support at the moment is just not sufficient to sustain and maintain businesses and jobs'.
Doctors warned restaurants would not be able to open until May because it would push up the R rate.
Dr Marc Baguelin of Imperial College London, who sits on the Sage committee, said: 'We looked at partial reopening and the increase of the R number and found that it will generate an increase, the extent of which we don't really know.
'And if this was to happen earlier than May, it will generate a bump which is really bad ... at best you will carry on having a very unsustainable level of pressure on the NHS.'
School's out until Easter?
By Jason Groves for The Daily Mail
Schools could remain shut until after the Easter holidays unless virus cases fall dramatically in the coming weeks, it was feared last night.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term.
But with Covid cases still at high levels, Downing Street refused to be drawn on the likely restart for millions of children stuck trying to learn from home.
And a government source acknowledged it was becoming 'increasingly difficult' to see how schools could be reopened next month, given the state of the pandemic.
During a round of media interviews yesterday, Mr Williamson insisted there would be no repeat of the shambolic episode at the start of this month when schools were ordered to close just one day after returning from the Christmas break.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term (stock photo)
He said schools would get at least two weeks' notice of any order to reopen – suggesting that ministers will have to decide by February 8 whether classrooms will reopen for the start of the second half of the spring term on February 22.
Although Boris Johnson has prioritised the early reopening of schools, government scientists have warned that a return to the classroom could trigger another sharp spike.
'We have to be realistic about the situation we are in and the impact reopening schools might have,' a source told the Mail.
Dr Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, said: 'After the chaos and confusion that government incompetence over school opening and closure has created, it is good we now have an assurance from Gavin Williamson that school staff will be given two weeks' notice before reopening.
'The last thing that parents and children need now is a stop-start approach. We all want schools to be open, but they must be opened when it is safe to do so, and when the conditions are right to keep schools open sustainably.'
Any delays will pile pressure on Mr Williamson to ensure high quality education is available to all those children forced to stay at home.
He said a further 1.3 million laptops, tablets and routers would be distributed to those in need in the coming weeks to widen access to online learning, providing the 'ultimate safety net' for disadvantaged pupils.
He added that he had 'made it clear to schools' what was the 'absolute minimum' they were expected to provide.
Mr Williamson said he wanted to get pupils back in the classroom at the 'earliest possible opportunity', adding: 'I would certainly hope that that would be before Easter.'
Downing Street confirmed that Mr Johnson wanted schools to reopen as quickly as possible but refused to be drawn on when that would be.
'If we can open them up before Easter we obviously will do but that is determined by the latest scientific evidence and data,' the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.