Sajid Javid is to push for lockdown to end “as soon as possible” over fears of the "cost" of shutting down the economy.
The newly appointed Health Secretary, who replaced Matt Hancock after he was forced to resign for breaking lockdown rules to conduct an affair with an aide, said on Sunday it was his "most immediate priority to see to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible".
A source close to Mr Javid added that “he’ll be extremely reluctant to support an extension… He’ll be looking and seeking to justify ending it as soon as possible."
The insider added that while Mr Javid has never criticised lockdown principles or timings, he has in the past year highlighted “concerns about the costs of it and the effects of it. Not just economically, but socially. Not just other types of health effects but things like domestic abuse and child abuse, and even extremism”.
Another well-placed source echoed similar sentiments, saying: “He’s a real lockdown sceptic. He’s convinced that in a few years time, with the economic costs so high, everyone will be thinking ‘Why the hell did we do that?’ The tilt in the cabinet has just shifted quite considerably.”
A source signalled that the Health Secretary will take a different approach from his predecessor to “weighting” the costs as well as the benefits of restrictions.
While Mr Hancock is well known to have been one of the most "doveish" Cabinet ministers who has pushed for tougher restrictions over the past year, Mr Javid has previously expressed a more "hawkish" stance from the back benches.
The former Chancellor was the most prominent Conservative to break ranks in May last year and publicly call for the economy to be opened as swiftly as possible.
Mr Javid is set to make his Commons debut in the role on Monday, when he will give MPs an update on the latest Covid-19 data and on when the remaining restrictions will be lifted.
Government insiders said that they did not expect any changes to lockdown rules on July 5 to be announced, but added that the situation was “looking good” to scrap the remaining measures on July 19.
The final decision was due to be taken by the Prime Minister, Mr Javid, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove at a meeting of the "quad" that started at 6.30pm on Sunday, it is understood.
However, hopes are growing among lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs that with Mr Javid now in the influential "quad", which shapes coronavirus policy, moves to scrap the remaining restrictions could be accelerated.
One Cabinet minister said Mr Javid’s appointment "nails on" social distancing measures being lifted on July 19 and "put a question mark" over whether the rules could be lifted earlier.
They said: "It nails on July 19 and it puts a question mark over July 5. I would hope Sajid will look at the data, really analyse it and say ‘right what is stopping what is stopping us doing July 5’. But I would expect them to go for caution and stick to July 19."
Affect of lifting step 4 of road map
Keeping up the pressure on the new minister, Mark Harper, the chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, welcomed Mr Javid’s appointment but warned on Twitter: “Big decisions coming up and I look forward to questioning him in the Commons about our #Road2Recovery.”
Mr Javid’s arrival at the helm of the health department has also raised hopes among Tory MPs that he would argue against a fourth lockdown this winter, if coronavirus cases begin to rise again and lead to a spike in hospitalisations.
A Government source was on Sunday dismissive of the idea of changes to the restrictions being announced for a date between July 5 and July 19, remarking: "It feels very unlikely, because we’ve had a plan built around clear dates, rather than randomly going ahead at other dates."
A Downing Street source described Mr Javid as an “extremely experienced cabinet minister”, highlighting his history inhabiting two of the so-called great offices of state, as Home Secretary and then Chancellor. He has also served as Business Secretary and Communities Secretary.
“He’s very well liked in the party and an enormously capable secretary of state, and addition to the Cabinet,” the No 10 insider added.
Former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the Commons health select committee, set out the challenges facing Mr Javid in his burgeoning in tray.
He said the Cabinet minister will have to grapple most urgently with the “three Ss”, which are fixing social care, addressing staffing shortages, and boosting safety, particularly in maternity care.
What is the psychological cost of a year of fear?
Mr Javid, who is expected to visit a hospital on Monday morning, said he was "incredibly honoured" to take up the post and paid tribute to NHS and social care staff who "work tirelessly every day", as well as the "phenomenal" vaccine rollout.
Eyebrows were raised over whether officials had tried to tone down the new Health Secretary’s remarks on returning to normal by publishing a quote from him stressing that his priority was to "get out of this pandemic".
As Mr Javid prepared to review the latest Covid data, government scientists warned against accelerating the lifting of lockdown.
Prof Sir Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said he would not bring the restrictions easing date forward, adding that it had been "very sensible" to delay it by four weeks.
"I don’t think we should rush into anything, we really want to make sure that we can release all restrictions and not have to backtrack at all," he added.
How many more could we vaccinated with the delay to June 21?
Prof Horby warned that Covid-19 vaccinations have "weakened" the link between infections and hospital admissions, but this was not "completely broken", with "breakthrough infections" still expected.
"As we see increasing infections, we will see increasing hospitalisations," he told The Andrew Marr Show. "But at this stage, we’re able to make sure that the health system isn’t overwhelmed and vaccination is really key to that."
He warned that the route out of the pandemic would be "a bumpy road out and that there will be twists and turns that we’re not wishing to see".
Opposition parties and health leaders have warned of a "perfect storm" hitting the NHS this winter, as the treatment backlog reaches more than five million patients.
On Sunday, NHS England said half of all adults under 30 in England had received a Covid-19 vaccine, with more than 4.2 million people aged 18 to 29 jabbed in three weeks.