It is “too early to say” if another national lockdown will be needed after Christmas, according to a senior minister.
George Eustice said “you can’t rule anything out” when asked by Sky News if the “stay at home” measures could come back into force to keep coronavirus under control.
The environment secretary also admitted it may be as late as “next summer” until “we can all start to get back to normal” if a vaccine is rolled out.
It comes ahead of a crucial vote in parliament tomorrow on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tier system in an attempt to return to a regional rules approach from 2 December.
He is facing deep unhappiness from many backbenchers, with Sky News calculating more than 60 have gone public with their concerns.
Mr Eustice admitted there were “up to 100” potential rebels – meaning the government may have to rely on backing from Sir Keir Starmer.
The Labour leader, who is expected to hold talks with England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty later, has not said yet if he will support the plans.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green told Sky News the opposition party has “always supported sensible public health restrictions” and will endorse the plan “with the right reassurances”.
In a bid to appease Tory MPs, Mr Johnson has agreed to their demands to publish “impact assessments” that will spell out the health, economic and social ramifications of the tier system.
When it comes into force on Wednesday, 99% of England will enter Tier 2 or 3, with tight restrictions on bars and restaurants and a ban on households mixing indoors.
However the rules will be eased for five days over Christmas – from 23-27 December – to allow three households to “bubble” and celebrate together.
Scientists advising the government have warned that could lead to a growth in COVID-19 infections.
Mr Eustice played down the threat of a third lockdown being needed afterwards, but could not rule the possibility out.
“Provided we maintain the tiered approach for as long as necessary, I don’t think it’ll be necessary to go back into another full lockdown,” he told Kay Burley.
“You can’t rule anything out because this is a rapidly developing situation… It’s always difficult to predict what will happen.”