Schools could start returning within three weeks under a ‘traffic light’ plan being pushed by senior ministers to ease lockdown misery – amid Cabinet splits over whether the government should risk more deaths from the disease to save the plunging economy.

Mail Online reports: “The fledgling ‘exit strategy’ would see the country get back up in running in stages after May 11, with primary and GCSE pupils potentially going back part-time.

“Meanwhile, clothes shops and garden centres could be among the ‘non-essential’ stores given a ‘green light’ to reopen with precautions to protect customers. Rail services would be brought up to normal levels, with commuters probably urged to wear facemasks, and the NHS would resume carrying out non-urgent procedures.

“A second ‘amber’ stage later in the summer would see more of the economy revived, with all employees told to go back to work and some social gatherings allowed.

“However, it might not be until later in the year that pubs and restaurants can reopen and sporting events get up and running. And over-70s face a ‘red light’ for many months more, potentially having to wait for a vaccine before going back to normal life.

“The proposals are gaining traction amid a mounting backlash at the lack of a clear plan. Senior ministers are divided between those who want to ‘run hot’, using apparent spare capacity in the NHS to relax social distancing soon, and those who fear acting too early will allow the disease to run rampant, according to the Sunday Times.

“After concerns about drift at the heart of power, Boris Johnson is gearing up to take back the reins of government, making calls to ministers from Chequers where he is recuperating from his own health scare with the disease.

“Cabinet minister MIchael Gove tried to dampen down frenzied speculation over loosening of restrictions this morning, saying while it was ‘entirely understandable’ people want to know the way out it was too early to make such decisions.”

Asked if the “traffic light” system was the government’s “exit strategy”, Mr Gove told Sky News: “No it’s not. It is the case that we are looking at all the evidence. But we have  set some tests that must be passed before we can even think about easing the lockdown.”

Although he stressed no decisions had been taken, Mr Gove did hint at the shape of an easing, suggesting pubs and other parts of the hospitality industry will be “among the last” to come back.

A 'traffic light' plan for easing the crippling lockdown curbs is being pushed by some ministers - although Downing Street is flatly denying it has a fixed plan yet

Councils have been ordered by the Government to keep parks open after some closed their gates in recent weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told the Downing Street daily press conference how he had ‘made it clear’ that green spaces should not be shut.

He also confirmed that funerals can still go ahead – and asked councils to keep cemeteries open to allow families to grieve for their loved ones.

However he warned that people must abide by social distancing rules, and not congregate in parks – but they must be accessible for ‘the health of the nation’.

Mr Jenrick said the lockdown measures in place since March 23 were harder for those without gardens and that “people need parks”.

There had been growing concern that Boris Johnson’s absence from Downing Street was hampering exit plans despite signs that the outbreak is passing its peak.

The deaths of a further 888 people were announced in the UK yesterday, bringing the total to 15,464, but the number of hospital patients with the virus fell by 952 to 17,759, raising hopes that infection rates have reached a plateau.

Under the first, “red”, phase of the ‘traffic light’ plan, businesses such as garden centres and hairdressers could reopen, subject to strict social distancing arrangements.

Around a fifth of children would also go back to school as part of a phased return, although officials are divided over whether to give priority based on year groups, the occupation of parents or by region.

The “amber” phase – probably in June or July – would see restaurants open on condition that tables were far enough apart. Most children and office workers would also leave isolation.

The timing of the “green” phase – a full return to normality including pubs opening and large events – would depend on the development of widespread testing for Covid-19 and consistently low levels of infections and deaths.

The elderly and vulnerable would remain ‘shielded’ until a vaccine is available, possibly for up to 18 months from now.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “At all times we have been guided by scientific advice. The current advice is that relaxing any measures could risk damage to public health, our economy, and the sacrifices we have all made. Only when the evidence suggests it is safe to do so will we adjust these measures.”