CABINET big guns are torn over how and when to end the lockdown now costing Britain £2.4billion a day.
They are trapped in a “lives versus money” row with just 24 hours to go before the three-week restrictions ordered by Boris Johnson ends.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel are among those who fear the action to halt the spread of coronavirus is worse than the disease.
They are pushing for a three-week extension, with an easing of restrictions as early as Monday May 4.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove warn this could end the treatment just as it starts to work.
They want the lockdown in place for another six weeks from now, to be re-assessed on May 25 after the Whitsun weekend.
A Cabinet source said: “It’s right and proper that we took action. But we must phase it out at the earliest opportunity.
‘NEED A GAME PLAN’
It could lead to many more deaths than the virus itself as the economy tanks, people lose jobs and families get poorer and sicker. We need a game plan for ending this.”
Caretaker PM Dominic Raab can’t settle the dispute because his role is to chair meetings and carry out his boss’s orders.
And with Boris Johnson likely to be away for another three weeks, the government is in danger of becoming rudderless.
An insider said: “There’s a bit of a power vacuum. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and we need him back — but he’s got to be left to rest and get well.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson fears a longer schools closure will dash the life chances of poor and vulnerable kids.
Ministers had planned for one in five pupils, the children of key workers, to stay in class yet only two per cent did so.
And the Chancellor is shocked that his job retention scheme attracted nine million claims — three times more than he expected.
The overall cost to the economy will be nudging £50billion by the end of the long Easter weekend.
Even if they agree a date, ministers still have to work out how far to go in returning Britain to normal.
Medics and scientists warn that a swift return could lead to a second wave of the virus, with an even more devastating effect.
One option is to lift restrictions on different regions or sectors. Some are pushing for young people — less prone to serious illness from the virus — to return to work first.
But a sceptic remarked: “It’s the over-50s with the money and experience who are the wealth creators. We need them back soon.”
Without a game plan, there are fears that tough limits could still be in place this time next year.