The government was today refusing to say how long social distancing must continue, amid claims it could stay in place for months or years after the current coronavirus pandemic.

Hopes that the lockdown could be eased within weeks were raised on Friday when the deputy chief medical officer said the latest statistics on deaths and hospitalisations indicated the measures were “beginning to pay off”.

But reports overnight suggested that guidance to restrict social contacts and remain two metres apart could have to remain in place until a Covid-19 vaccine is found.

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And health secretary Matt Hancock did not rule out an extended period of enforced changes to normal social behaviour.

Asked about a Daily Telegraph report that scientists believe social distancing must continue “indefinitely” after the lockdown is lifted to prevent a deadly second wave of coronavirus, Mr Hancock replied: “There will be a wide debate – of course there will – about the extent of the measures and how long they are going to be in place for, but what I can tell you is that now it is vital that people stay at home and observe the social distancing measures.”

Downing Street sources said they “did not recognise” briefings that restrictions might have to carry on indefinitely, but said that the government was making no comment on how long they will continue.

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said that key lines on the coronavirus graphs appeared to be starting to flatten, after rising swiftly in recent weeks.

He warned the UK remained in a “dangerous phase”, adding: We have to take the pain now to get the gain in a few weeks time”.

The expectation is that instructions to work from home and avoid unnecessary movements outside the house will be extended when they are reviewed by ministers on 16 April, three weeks after their imposition by prime minister Boris Johnson.

But Prof Van-Tam’s comments raised hopes that the rules may be eased within the coming weeks, though many expect any relaxation to be gradual, with specific groups – such as the young – being given the green light to return to normal life earlier than others.

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Now reports are suggesting that people could be asked to consider changing their lifestyles and limiting social interactions, including visits to relatives or returning to their workplaces, for months or years in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

But Mr Hancock insisted that ministers’ focus is on ensuring that the public maintains social distancing during the current sunny Easter weekend.

He told BBC Breakfast: “The current thinking, which is important for every single person, is you should stay at home because that protects the NHS and saves lives.

“Of course we keep all these things under review and the scientific committee that advises us is meeting and looking at the evidence this week.

“This weekend it is hot outside but everybody needs to stay at home.

“We are just starting to see the curve flatten.

“We are just starting to see the number of new arrivals at hospital with coronavirus starting to flatten.

“It is too early to lift the measures and people need to stay at home.”

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