Mr Gove acknowledged there would still be “difficult weeks ahead” with the NHS facing real pressure, and it was not yet possible to say the current Omicron-driven wave of Covid-19 cases was abating.
The Levelling Up Secretary, who was one of the voices around the Cabinet table arguing for tougher measures when Omicron emerged, said the easing of restrictions would have to be guided by science, but “the sooner the better”.
Mr Gove said lateral flow tests will be free for “as long as we need” and “they’re a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who are needed to isolate do so”.
He told Sky News: “We are moving to a situation – we’re not there yet – but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with Covid, and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.”
From Monday, around 100,000 critical workers are beginning to be offered daily lateral flow testing to help spot and isolate asymptomatic cases and limit the risk of outbreaks in key workplaces.
A further 141,472 cases were announced on Sunday, the fifth consecutive fall – however, this number should be treated with caution as reports often drop on the weekend.
NHS England figures show 16,399 hospital beds were occupied by patients with Covid-19 on Sunday, with 704 of them requiring mechanical ventilation.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It is the case that we are in the next two or three weeks – perhaps longer – facing real pressure on the NHS, and our first responsibility at the moment must be to support the NHS.”
But after the current “difficult period”, Mr Gove said he hopes “there will be better times ahead”.
“There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live – viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.
“So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions and – I think for all of us – the sooner, the better.
“But we have got to keep the NHS safe.”
Ministers are under pressure to ease restrictions and cut the isolation time for cases to five days, in line with the United States, with Mr Gove saying the situation was always kept under review.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak was among ministers keen on the economic benefits of reducing the period from seven to five days, according to the Daily Telegraph, while Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has suggested the move could help ease staffing problems.
The current Plan B measures in England – including guidance to work from home where possible and the widespread use of face coverings – are set to be reviewed on January 26.
Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservatives warned Boris Johnson that if he sought to extend the measures he could face a revolt even larger than the 100 Conservatives who defied him when they were first introduced in December.
Mr Harper said: “The Prime Minister sort of wants to agree with us on the backbenches, that we have to be realistic about living with Covid forever… then he says he wants to keep restrictions in reserve or won’t rule them out.
“This is becoming an unsustainable position.”
He added: “If I was running a hospitality business I would be very nervous about investing, growing my business, taking any risks, because I literally have no idea about what’s going to happen next.”
Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme things had been “really, really tough for the hospitality industry”, adding: “Why do people who work in hospitals or work in retail go to work, but office workers are exempted from going to work?”
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) panel, said the shift towards living with Covid-19 would be a phased transition.
“It can’t be an emergency forever,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over.”
Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, said the virus is going to pose a very difficult situation for the next three months “at least”.
He told Sky News: “I’m afraid we are moving through the marathon but there’s no actual way to say that we’re at the end – we can see the end in sight, but we’re not there.
“And there’s going to be some bumps before we get there.”
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