The public must accept “the new normal” of tough restrictions lasting for many months, Dominic Raab says, as he played down an early easing of the lockdown.

“Social distancing measures are going to be with us for some time,” he warned people – a day after the death toll in hospitals topped the grim milestone of 20,000.

For the first time, the stand-in prime minister – until Boris Johnson returns to work on Monday – did reveal some of the options being considered for when a partial relaxation would be possible.

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Schools would be required to separate out pupils, offices allowed to open only with fewer staff and non-essential businesses told to create 2m gaps between customers.

However, Mr Raab stressed none were likely before ministers “get the virus down”, adding: “We might end up changing our mind once we know the fuller evidence.”

He also declined to say when healthcare workers would finally have sufficient personal protective equipment, admitting: “It is very difficult to say that with the kind of precision you want.”

A total of 78 NHS staff – and 16 care workers – had died after becoming infected with coronavirus, Mr Raab revealed, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Senior Tories are pressing for options for easing the lockdown to be set out within days, pinning their hopes on the prime minister to fill what has been perceived as a leadership vacuum.

But Mr Raab said doing so would be irresponsible and “only create more uncertainty in the public’s mind”.

And he claimed that – far from there being a public clamour to ease the lockdown quickly – people were worried that restrictions would be lifted prematurely, putting them at risk.

“If you look at the public mood, it is overwhelmingly that they are concerned that we might ease up too soon,” Mr Raab told Sky News.

“If we started proposing one or other measure that subsequently, down the track, we found out we couldn’t implement you would be saying that we had jumped the gun.

“You would be criticising us for that and the public would be getting mixed messaging.”

Meanwhile, a former deputy chief medical officer for England warned a vaccine to prevent coronavirus might not be ready until the latter part of “next year”.

Professor Gina Radford said people needed to be “realistic” about the prospect of speedy progress, as researchers are having to “start from scratch” to create one.

“We haven’t got a hugely good track record with vaccines for this particular virus, coronavirus, the family of viruses,” warned Prof Radford, who held her government role between 2015 and 2019.

“There is no point creating a vaccine that will then cause more harm than it is trying to prevent,” she added.

“I think those who are very used to the process of developing vaccines are saying they are not anticipating it being available until well into next year.”

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, also used the phrase “the new normal”, as she said she would diverge from elsewhere in the UK in lifting lockdown measures only if necessary.

“If, and it is an if, I’m not saying that we’re likely to get into this territory, the UK government took decisions that I thought were premature in terms of coming out of the lockdown then clearly I would want to make sure that Scotland did what I judged was best to protect the population,” she said.

Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, said the lockdown should be lifted as one, not by sector or region which would be “unworkable”.

And he said firms should only get government support after the pandemic if they paid the real living wage to the likes of low-paid care workers on the front line.

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