Britain's new Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Monday that England is on course to fully lift coronavirus restrictions on July 19.
Speaking in the House of Commons for the first time since his appointment at the weekend, Mr Javid said that while case numbers are rising, the number of deaths "remains mercifully low".
"We know we cannot simply eliminate it, we have to learn to live with it," he said after taking up his new role. “We owe it to British people to restore their freedoms. For me, July 19 is not only the end of the line but an exciting new journey for our country.
"We must keep our resolve so that together we can beat this pandemic and build back better."
In mid-June, the planned easing of restrictions was pushed back because of rising concern about the highly contagious Delta variant that was sweeping the country.
July 19 was named as the earliest possible date for the final easing of restrictions.
"Whilst we decided not to bring forward [lifting restrictions], we see no reason to go beyond July 19", Mr Javid told MPs.
"July 19 remains our target date. The prime minister has called it our terminus date. For me, July 19 is not only the end of the line but the start of an exciting new journey for our country."
He said that while cases are rising, the number of deaths "remains mercifully low", and that by July 19 two-thirds of the nation’s people will have been vaccinated.
Mr Javid took the job on Saturday after Matt Hancock resigned for breaking social distancing rules by kissing an aide.
Ministers previously promised a data review to determine whether restrictions could be lifted on July 5, the halfway point of the four-week extension of measures.
However, the reopening delay has failed to contain a surge in cases sparked by the fast-spreading Delta variant.
Public Health England last week said cases of the Delta variant had risen by 35,204 from the previous week to 111,157 – a 46 per cent increase.
Separate government figures show Covid cases in schools rose 70 per cent in the week to June 20, with most now being the Delta strain.
Since July 21, the original “freedom day”, new coronavirus cases have risen 59 per cent in week-on-week figures.
On Saturday, the UK recorded the highest number of new coronavirus cases since February 5, with 18,270 people testing positive. Another 14,876 cases were recorded on Sunday.
Despite the surging number of cases, hospital admissions and daily deaths remain relatively low.
About 84 per cent of adults in the UK have received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 61.6 per cent are fully vaccinated with two.
Ministers say restrictions can be eased if hospital admissions remain low, with Covid-19 treated more like other endemic illnesses such as the flu.
Mr Javid is understood to be more cautious than his predecessor about easing lockdown restrictions on July 19.
"We are still in a pandemic and I want to see that come to an end as soon as possible, and that will be my most immediate priority – to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible,” he said on Sunday.
However, the main opposition Labour Party contrasted Mr Javid’s comments with a press release issued in his name by the health department, which omitted the “as soon as and as quickly as possible” clause.
“I don’t think it’s inspired confidence that already on day one, there’s been the health secretary saying his position this morning and then the government rowing back on it,” Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said.
Meanwhile, questions remain about Mr Hancock’s behaviour in office.
Mr Hancock announced his resignation on Saturday after The Sun newspaper published pictures and video from a security camera in his office that showed him kissing Gina Coladangelo.
Labour is calling for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ms Coladangelo’s employment, and there are concerns about Mr Hancock’s use of a personal email address to conduct government business.
Security agencies are expected to discuss the leak of CCTV footage with the Cabinet Office amid mounting concerns in government about other security breaches.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said on Monday that Mr Hancock was right to resign after a “clear and understandable groundswell” of pressure for him to quit.
“When we look back at this, it took a day or so, but the right outcome was achieved and it was correct Matt Hancock resigned,” he told Sky News.
“I think the circumstances became overwhelmingly clear that credibility was at stake and that’s why Matt Hancock resigned.”
Asked whether he had a CCTV camera in his office, Mr Buckland said he was unsure.
“I’ve asked that question,” he said. “Many of my colleagues would be asking the same question and making sure the offices are swept.”
Mr Buckland’s remarks on Mr Hancock contrast with those made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who on Friday stood by his former health secretary and said he considered the matter closed.