Boris Johnson has said it is “too early” to say whether coronavirus restrictions will be eased before the summer.
The prime minister has said the current national lockdown in England will be reviewed in mid-February. The legislation behind the restrictions expires at the end of March.
Speaking on Thursday on a visit to Didsbury, south Manchester, Johnson said it was “absolutely crucial” that the public followed the rules.
Asked whether the country was “looking at summer rather than spring” for restrictions to be eased, the prime minister said: “I think it’s too early to say when we’ll be able to lift some of the restrictions.”
He added: “We’re seeing the contagiousness of the new variant that we saw arrive just before Christmas – there’s no doubt it does spread very fast indeed.
“It’s not more deadly but it is much more contagious and the numbers are very great.”
Johnson warned it was “unquestionably going to be a tough few weeks ahead”.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, is due to host a Downing Street press conference on Thursday afternoon.
The government has set a target of vaccinating around 15 million of the most vulnerable people by February 15.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs on Tuesday the NHS was now vaccinating people at the rate of 200 jabs every minute.
He said the UK has now given more than five million doses to 4.6 million people.
It comes as statistics from the Test and Trace service suggested the number of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 has fallen in England by 15% week on week.
But the figures contrast with latest REACT survey by Imperial College London, which found the number of people infected between January 6 and 15 was up by 50% on early December.