At Wednesday evening's press conference Boris Johnson stood between chief medical officer Chris Whitty and NHS primary care director Nikki Kanani, but he seemed to be living in a different world from them.
As Britain recorded its highest ever daily number of new coronavirus infections, Whitty and Kanani were appropriately grave, warning of the difficult choices people would have to face in the coming days.
Whitty said he expected his Christmas to be interrupted by a call to go on duty in hospital because so many doctors would be ill with coronavirus.
Kanani said she would be doing far fewer things with her children than planned, and she urged people to exercise similar restraint.
Johnson could not bring himself to advise against going to office Christmas parties or to suggest that the few such events still going ahead should be cancelled. Instead he sought to reassure around 100 Conservative MPs who voted against his Plan B restrictions, including coronavirus passes for entry to nightclubs and other large venues.
“I do understand people’s feelings about what they see as infringements of liberty,” he said. “We’ve been trying throughout this pandemic to keep our lives as open and as free as possible. The aim of Plan B plus the ‘get boosted now’ campaign is to ensure next year is as free as possible and we protect our society and economy in every way that we can.”
Johnson has promised his MPs that he will not introduce any new regulations without recalling parliament so they can have their say on them. But Omicron is spreading so fast that he may be unable to avoid bringing in tough new measures in the next week or two if he wants to stop the country’s hospitals from being overwhelmed.
The Conservatives who voted against coronavirus passports for nightclubs are unlikely to support tougher restrictions such as the closure of hospitality venues. And if he relies for a second time on Labour’s support for new restrictions his own MPs’ unhappiness over his leadership will deepen further.
Parliament goes into recess on Thursday, but the prime minister faces a number of potentially difficult obstacles before he can enjoy Christmas. Voters in North Shropshire could overturn a 23,000-vote Conservative majority on Thursday; cabinet secretary Simon Case will report within days on what happened at last year's Downing Street parties; and ethics adviser Christopher Geidt will decide whether to resign after Johnson may have misled him over the refurbishment of his flat.
All the while Omicron continues to spread, taking its grim toll on individuals, families, businesses and the prime minister’s political fortunes.