New Health Secretary Sajid Javid has described lifting coronavirus restrictions as soon as possible as his “absolute priority” and said there would be “no going back” once they were ended.
The former chancellor struck a less cautious tone on lockdown restrictions as he took over from Matt Hancock, who resigned over the weekend.
But Mr Javid stressed the need to be “careful” in making any changes to ensure they were irreversible, ahead of giving a statement to MPs in Parliament.
He was due to address the Commons later on Monday, in anticipation of the earliest date earmarked for restrictions to end.
Announcing the delay to the end of all legal social distancing controls earlier this month, Boris Johnson downplayed the prospect of so-called “freedom day” taking place on July 5, instead saying it was far more likely to come on July 19.
During a visit to St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Mr Javid told broadcasters: “I want to see the restrictions lifted and life going back to normal as quickly as possible.
“Right here and now that is my absolute priority. I want to see those restrictions lifted as soon as we can, as quickly as possible.
“In terms of the road map to that, you’ll have to wait for my statement to Parliament later today.
“It’s going to be irreversible, there’s no going back. That’s why we want to be careful during that process.”
Mr Hancock was always considered to be among the more pro-lockdown voices in the Cabinet, but resigned as health secretary on Saturday after leaked CCTV images showed him breaking coronavirus restrictions by kissing an aide in his ministerial office.
As a former chancellor, some expected his successor to shift priority onto the health of the nation’s finances, with some in the Tory party anxious for a swifter return to normality despite the increase in Covid-19 infections being fuelled by the Delta variant.
In an interview last year, Mr Javid expressed his concerns over long lockdowns and how they would impact the economy.
On Monday, health bosses urged Mr Javid to be the “voice of caution” in the Cabinet, as a scientist advising the Government warned it would be a “definite mistake” to bring forward the lifting of restrictions.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor warned that, while the vaccination programme was lessening the link between infection and deaths, the number of cases in hospital was rising.
“Covid is an issue and he needs to be a voice of caution in the Cabinet in terms of the potential pressures in the health service,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Professor Peter Openshaw, who advises the Government as a member of Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group), said it would be a “definite mistake” to bring the easing of restrictions forward from July 19.
The Imperial College London academic told Sky News: “He may have different attitudes, but I do hope that he will follow his predecessor and take a very cautious approach, because we must get the vaccination rates up before we ease the restrictions.”
Prof Openshaw added: “We are very fortunate to have had this four-week delay which allows vaccination rates to get really high and for us to gather a lot more data about just how the Delta agent is spreading.
“And I think bringing the date forward would be a definite mistake.”
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said Mr Javid needed to immediately address the fresh surge of Covid-19, a “huge spike” in demand for emergency services and a backlog of people waiting for NHS treatment.
She said the NHS was facing a “really tough winter”, adding: “We need to be able to clear the decks for that and focus on that.”