BORIS Johnson has hailed the “miracle of the vaccination programme” as having created the opportunity for a “one-way road to freedom” after he unveiled a four-stage plan that could pave the way for all coronavirus restrictions being lifted in England by June 21.

Speaking at a Downing St press conference, the Prime Minister said the UK Government’s roadmap - which from March 8 will see all pupils in England’s schools return to class and socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person being permitted again - struck a balance and allowed people to go forward cautiously and not to go backwards.

“That’s what people really want,” declared Mr Johnson. “What they want is to go forward as fast as reasonably and safely as we can and not to be forced backwards again. They would rather trade some haste for certainty and security about the deadlines we are setting.”

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: PM announces route out of lockdown.Camley's Cartoon: PM announces route out of lockdown.

The PM insisted a cautious approach was the sensible way forward given the UK variant was “capable of spreading really very fast when you unlock; we saw that in the end of last year, in January”.

He also admitted he could “not guarantee” the lifting of restrictions was going to be irreversible but that the intention was that it “should be irreversible”.

Mr Johnson denied he was being overly cautious given the success of the vaccine rollout, insisting he had “not been remotely a gloomster”.

He suggested the “crocus of hope was poking through the frost and spring is on its way both physically and metaphorically” yet he stressed he would “not be buccaneering with people’s lives”.

The PM also said he was a “sceptic” over people claiming the pandemic would hollow out Britain’s city centres, insisting they would “bounce back along with the rest of the economy once we’ve got this roadmap delivered”.

Sir Patrick Valance, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who also referred to the “miracle” of the vaccine programme, stressed that the five-week review after each major relaxation was necessary so that the Government was “not flying blind” and could assess the effect of one easing prudently before another one was undertaken.

“In terms of minimising the number of deaths, it’s about going slowly and it’s about us all sticking with the rules. So, when there’s a chance to do a bit more, that isn’t an invitation to do a lot more, it’s an invitation to do a bit more,” he insisted, adding this was “how we have got to behave as we go through this rollout”.

Earlier, Mr Johnson explained to MPs that, after the first step of lifting of restrictions with the return of schools on March 8 south of the border, a further easing would take place three weeks later on March 29 when the school Easter holidays begin with larger groups of up to six people or two households being allowed to gather in parks and gardens.

Other measures in the road map include:

*from April 12 at the earliest, shops, hairdressers, nail salons, libraries, outdoor attractions and outdoor hospitality venues such as beer gardens will reopen;

*from May 17 at the earliest, two households or groups of up to six people will be allowed to mix indoors and limited crowds will be allowed at sporting events and

*from June 21 at the earliest, all remaining restrictions on social contact could be lifted, larger events can go ahead and nightclubs could finally reopen.

In a Commons statement, the Prime Minister said: “The threat remains substantial with the numbers in hospital only now beginning to fall below the peak of the first wave in April.

“But we are able to take these steps because of the resolve of the British people and the extraordinary success of our NHS in vaccinating more than 17.5 million people across the UK.”

He told MPs it was “crucial that this road map should be cautious but also irreversible,” noting: “We’re setting out on what I hope and believe is a one way road to freedom and this journey is made possible by the pace of the vaccination programme.”

However, he pointed out that “no vaccine can ever be 100% effective”, explaining: “So, as the modelling released by Sage today shows, we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths.

“And this would happen whenever lockdown is lifted – whether now or in six or nine months – because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines.

“There is therefore no credible route to a zero Covid Britain, or indeed, a zero Covid world and we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children.”

Mr Johnson, who will lead a Downing St press conference this evening, said that some people might regard it as arrogant to impose a timetable in the face of the virus and agreed that “we must always be humble in the face of nature and be cautious”.

But he also insisted the vaccination programme had “dramatically changed the odds in our favour” and it was on this basis the country could proceed.

The PM also accepted there were some who believed the Government could go faster on the basis of the vaccine rollout, a view he could understand as he said he sympathised with the “exhaustion and stress” people and businesses were experiencing after so long in lockdown.

“But to them all I say, today the end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today.”

Mr Johnson also pointedly sought to reassure people fearful that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, will begin immediately to withdraw financial support in next week’s Budget.

He told MPs: “I want to reassure the House we will not pull the rug out; for the duration of the pandemic the Government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK. And the Chancellor will set out further details in the Budget next Wednesday.”

Alongside the four-step plan, the PM launched a series of reviews, including on whether people should be able to show if they have had a Covid-19 vaccine or a negative test.

This work will look at whether “Covid status certification” could help reopen the economy by allowing people who have received a jab or a negative test result to do things which would not be allowed for those who could not prove their status.

Officials recognise that there are moral and ethical questions as well as practical ones for any such move, which has been highly controversial in Westminster.

A research programme will use pilot schemes involving testing and other measures to run events with larger crowd sizes.

International travel rules will also be reviewed with May 17 targeted as the earliest possible date for a foreign holiday.

A further piece of work to conclude by June 21 will examine social distancing requirements – including hugs with friends and relatives – the use of face masks and requirements to work from home.

The measures are expected to be put to a Commons vote before the House rises for Easter in late March.