Philip Hammond says a plan to allow the economy to escape the lockdown must be published next week, because the country will be “living with Covid” for a long time.

The former Conservative chancellor said Boris Johnson’s expected return to Downing Street must see him to bow to pressure to set out a blueprint for a phased return to something like normal life.

“The reality is that we have to start reopening the economy. But we have to do it living with Covid,” Mr Hammond said.

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“We can’t wait until a vaccine is developed, produced in sufficient quantity and rolled out across the population. The economy won’t survive that long.”

Mr Hammond said the strategy so far of “locking everything down and keeping everything locked down is relatively straightforward”.

“The challenge of how to carefully, progressively, methodically reopen, protecting both health and jobs, is much, much more challenging and calls for a really skilful political leadership,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

And, asked if such a plan should be “published now”, he replied: “Yes, I think that is the next step.

“I understand the prime minister is going to be back in harness in Downing Street at the beginning of next week and I very much hope that will signal a clear step change.”

The comments lay bare the growing unease in Tory circles that the government is refusing to even discuss a plan – even as the Scottish and Welsh governments float detailed options.

It seems all but certain that England’s restrictions will remain in their current form after 7 May – the next review date – for fear of triggering a second peak of coronavirus infections and deaths.

The army of 18,000 community infection chasers – seen as key to keeping down case numbers – will not be recruited and trained for several weeks.

It raises the prospect of the lockdown being eased more quickly in the Celtic nations, with Wales announcing that it wanted to start the process on 7 May.

Meanwhile, the medical director of NHS England has played down any impact of the presence of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s controversial adviser, at key scientific meetings.

Labour is demanding answers over the independence of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which has delivered the advice behind key decisions made in Whitehall.

But Professor Stephen Powis, the medical director, said: “My experience of Sage is that it is a forum for scientific discussion.

“It is the experts from a variety of backgrounds who discuss the evidence, they discuss the evidence base of the various topics, they come to conclusions around that evidence base. It is then, of course, the role of Sage to advise the government.

“I have been confident that what happens at Sage is a scientific discussion involving the scientists and the experts who are members of Sage.”

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