The first thing that was apparent as Boris Johnson made his first public appearance of 2022 was that he has a New Year haircut and was wearing a new tie that we haven’t seen before. Christmas present from Carrie?
More importantly, could the prime minister’s neat new haircut – the untidy, dishevelled blond mop of pre-Christmas has gone – be a signal that he has made a New Year’s resolution to be less chaotic and erratic in his approach to governing in the coming year than he was in 2021?
His message during his interview at a COVID-19 vaccination centre at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, Aylesbury, was certainly uncharacteristically disciplined. During a six-minute interview he spoke of sticking to Plan B no fewer than six times.
He stressed the need to “continue with Plan B”, “use the Plan B measures”, “make sure we follow Plan B” and ended his interview by saying “we have got to remain with Plan B”. The message could not have been clearer.
We know why, of course. After being ambushed by his Cabinet, who insisted “Plan B and no further” in the week before Christmas and suffering a rebellion by 100 Conservative MPs in a Commons vote on Plan B earlier in December, he doesn’t want to risk a further Tory mutiny.
Even before the PM’s interview, the government’s position was already clear. At the weekend Health Secretary Sajid Javid said further restrictions should be “a last resort” and Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and Health Minister Ed Argar both said the data didn’t support new restrictions.
Ministers are hoping the data will confirm that Omicron numbers in London have peaked, patients who are admitted to hospital are spending less time there and fewer people are on ventilators, because – as the PM said – “Omicron is much milder, considerably milder” than previous variants and more people have had a booster jab.
So the prime minister intends to hold his nerve and tough it out – for now. But there is already a backlash from the medical community against what some NHS bosses, doctors and nursing staff regard as a reckless gamble by the PM.
Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers, which represent trust bosses, claims rising numbers of hospital admissions, staff absences due to Covid and an already overstretched NHS are becoming “unsustainable”.
And the Royal College of Nursing has written to Mr Javid demanding “a more cautious approach for England without further delay” and highlighting the different approach taken by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But these pleas will go unanswered in 10 Downing Street and the Department of Health until Wednesday at the earliest. That’s when the Cabinet next meets and when Mr Javid will make a Commons statement announcing the outcome of the government’s latest review of Covid restrictions in England.
But the prime minister has made it clear – no fewer than six times, for the avoidance of doubt – that whatever Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do he is determined to stick to Plan B and – barring an unforeseen crisis in the weeks ahead – avoid further Covid restrictions in England.
Who knows? If the PM maintains his new disciplined approach, he may even get his hair cut more regularly this year.