Just hours after Boris Johnson promised a mid-February review point, his key ally warned the public to expect the curbs to remain for longer.
And he added: “I think it’s right to say that, as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions but not necessarily all.”
In his TV address, the prime minister told people they were entering “the last phase of the struggle” – holding out hope that around 14 million of the most vulnerable in society would be vaccinated by mid-February.
But Mr Gove, speaking on Sky News, conceded “it takes some time immediately after the vaccination for people to get the benefit of full immunity”.
He said: “You are absolutely right you can’t predict with certainty that we will be able to lift restrictions in the week commencing February 15-22.”
Mr Gove also said:
* The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would say more today about increased financial help for people unable to work as normal.
* The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, would announce tomorrow what might replace exams – insisting there “are ways of ensuring we can assess the work that students have done”.
* New plans would be announced “very shortly” to curb the arrival of international passengers – who are expected to have to provide a negative test before flying.
* Students who had already left home for the university term should “stay put at the moment”.
* Nurseries must stay open – despite criticism – to provide childcare for medical staff “whose work is so vital in getting us out of this lockdown”.
Mr Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, defended the screeching U-turn that saw Mr Johnson close all schools – just hours after ordering primaries in most places to stay open for the first day of the new term.
He argued the judgement of the chief medical officers that the surge in infections required the UK to move to the Level 5 alert level had left “no alternative”.
Keir Starmer again criticised the government for being “too slow on almost every occasion” – but said the priority now was making the vaccination programme a success.
“We are in a race against time now. We have got a contract with the British people to say, these are tough restrictions, in return for that, the government has got to roll out the vaccination programme at speed and accelerate that.
And he added: “We have to deal with anti-vax campaigns because they will cost lives.
“If we need to pass emergency legislation to deal with them, I would be willing to work with the government on that.”