Boris Johnson’s declaration that his approach to relaxing social and economic restrictions will be driven by “data not dates” has led to calls for him to be ready to bring forward changes if key figures are positive.
But Mr Sunak today made clear that the dates set out by the prime minister last week - including the opening of schools on 8 March, non-essential shops on 12 April and indoor entertainment on 17 May and the end to social-distancing on 21 June - are the earliest possible moments for relaxations to take place.
While they may be delayed by bad news, the plan makes clear that they cannot be brought forward in response to better-than-expected progress, he said.
Mr Sunak said that early signs suggested that the public can have “confidence and optimism” that the moves will allow the UK to “slowly get our lives back to normal”.
But he said the plan was designed to ensure that the easing of restrictions was not immediately followed by further curbs.
Each of the four steps in the roadmap includes a four-week period for data on the impact of successive restrictions to be gathered and evaluated and a week’s notice of any changes, meaning that steps cannot come any sooner than five weeks apart and a delay at any point will have knock-on effects on later relaxations.
Mr Sunak told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “What the prime minister laid out was a series of steps with appropriate gaps between them for us to understand the impact of each step.
“And, as he said, what we want is a ‘cautious but irreversible’ approach. That’s why we’ve taken the approach that we have.
“Those will be the earliest dates that we think we can do the various things that we’ve we’ve laid out. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure that it is hopefully irreversible. That’s what we want to see.”
The chancellor was challenged by Ridge over how the government could claim to be driven by data not dates if it was ruling out bringing the dates forward in response to favourable data.
He replied: “We want to be cautious because what businesses don’t want is a stop/start approach to this.
“We want to know that it’s a one-way road, and that’s why it’s cautious.
“We’ve given the earliest dates to give a sense of timing and a sense of direction and then obviously we might have to adjust those if things are not going exactly as we would like.”
He added: “The early signs are promising. We’re seeing great news with the rollout of the vaccine, not just the take-up of it but also the efficacy of the vaccine, the data that we’re getting is showing us that it is working.
“So I think that should give us all a sense of confidence and optimism about the future, that we can make progress on that roadmap and hopefully slowly get our lives back to normal.”