The first steps towards normal life could begin within the next four weeks if infection rates begin to fall.
Ministers have refused to discuss publicly when and how they aim to end the £2.5billion-a-day lockdown, entering its fourth week on Monday.
They fear doing so would send out the message that the crisis is over and wreck all the hard-won gains. But they are privately considering slowly easing off the brake.
In the “red” phase, people will still be banned from many things they did before the outbreak, but a number of non-essential shops and businesses would re-open.
On “amber”, caution would still be required despite much more economic activity being unlocked.
This would be followed by the green light for much of normal life to resume — but with measures still in place to avoid infection.
However the old and vulnerable could face indefinite lockdown unless a vaccine is developed soon.
Some officials are concerned the over-70s and those with poor health may have to be shielded for up to 18 months, even when many of the restrictions have been lifted.
An insider said: “It’s going to be a slow path back. But just because we aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about it.”
Senior officials are increasingly optimistic deaths and infections have reached their peak due to the NHS working wonders and the “stay at home” message being obeyed by the vast majority.
SUN readers are today urged to sign a petition calling for our NHS staff to be awarded the George Cross.
Yesterday, we backed a proposal by Lord Ashcroft to honour our health heroes with the gallantry gong given for acts of bravery that did not take place in battle.
A No10 spokesman said: “The NHS is doing a fantastic job and the nation will want to find a way to say thank you when we have defeated this virus.”
But a lifting of the lockdown will start only if that continues, testing targets are met and the prospect of anti-viral drugs is on the near horizon.
This would allow small, non-essential shops and businesses to re-open, providing they observed strict social distancing.
Low-risk personal activities would be allowed, such as visits to hairdressers and shopping trips providing masks were worn. Nurseries would reopen.
The amber phase could be ushered in by June — but no earlier than May 25. It would lift the ban on car journeys and family visits.
Commuters would wear masks and gloves on public transport and hand sanitisers would be provided on trains. Work times would be staggered in order to minimise rush-hour crowding.
Small firms would be allowed to re-open, as would schools and libraries. Restaurants could serve again with strict seating plans to uphold social distancing.
The green phase is expected in July, but could come as early as June 15 if progresses is better than expected.
This would allow weddings and funerals to take place with larger groups.
FACED with a set of unprecedented challenges, the government have done brilliantly to focus on getting the Coronavirus pandemic under control.
They’ve done well but that’s not to say that it has got everything right. For example, who understands the decision to allow some 15,000 people to walk through every day without testing or quarantine at our ports and airports?
This cannot be right particularly as many seem now to be coming in to do seasonal work when 1.4 million British people have had to sign on for benefits and are available to do that work.
Yet on the vital decision, the government has been right that these weeks in lockdown, to support our brilliant frontline staff in the NHS, will get Covid-19 under control.
Yet people are now asking as we extend lockdown, when we will we get the economy started again?
Sadly, instead of answering this question, it seems to raise alarms bells in government, worrying that the public will suddenly assume that the lockdown is over and return to the streets.
However, I believe they are wrong.
Notice how the lockdown has already led to a significant change in behaviour by the British public, taking politicians and advisors by surprise. People have stuck to the lockdown so well that is working better than was expected.
I therefore believe firmly that we must not now treat the British public like children. They are quite capable of understanding the difference between the need to continue the lockdown and plans to lift it.
That’s why we need to make plans. A proposal by two eminent economists, Ormerod and Lyons, has laid out a way to get the UK economy up and running, controlled like a red, amber and green traffic light and sector by sector.
They show that getting the economy going is as much about lives as about business and that people’s positive behaviour should now form the basis of the exit strategy decisions.
The public has got it; they know that it is still all about how people influence others and not just about whether they catch the virus themselves.
But businesses need to plan, people need to prepare and those planning transport need to understand how to get going again. None of this happens overnight.
The British people put their trust in the government during this pandemic, now the Government must put their trust in the British people as they plan to unlock the lockdown.
Wearing of masks on public transport would still be compulsory and flights from high-risk countries would continue to be banned.
Even when pubs are allowed to open again, landlords will be ordered to hire bouncers to limit the number of customers and ensure social distancing is observed.
An insider said: “The NHS has done a terrific job and we really meant it when we said there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Sunday News by David Wooding Political Editor