The lockdown in the southeast of England may be the shape of things to come. Sixteen million people are under new severe tier 4 restrictions, and there are suggestions that these tougher new rules could be in place for months.

Many more across the country have seen their plans torn up at the 11th hour. The reason for the government's change of plan is a new strain of the coronavirus, dubbed B117, that appears no more lethal than the original Sars-CoV-2 but is much more transmissible. European nations have banned flights from the U.K., fearful that a mutant pathogen will spread across borders and seas. If the new virus's effect on the rate of transmission is as bad as government advisers' fear, then the U.K. will need a national shutdown of the kind imposed in March.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson should have acted sooner. He may not have known exactly what was driving the growth in COVID cases, but ministers have been aware for a week that something was going wrong. The British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal have warned that if current trends continued, even without the planned Christmas relaxation, there were likely to be 19,000 COVID patients in English hospitals by New Year's Eve — the same as at the peak of the first wave in April.

There are calls by influential Conservative backbenchers for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to resign, but the buck stops with his boss. On planet Johnson it was all going to be terribly easy. Back here on Earth, reality has proved otherwise. Competence matters, and Johnson doesn't have it.

The most important way to reduce the emergence of new mutants is to limit the spread of the virus. For the third time in a year, the government refused to face the facts and take the necessary action until much too late. Those delays have not only cost thousands of lives but have, cumulatively, shredded the trust in authority needed to boost compliance. This is all the more frustrating as the vaccine rollout offered new hope.

More than ever, given increased infectivity, Johnson needs to get an effective test-and-trace system and devise a proper support system for people to self-isolate. The prime minister ought to come up with a funded plan to make schools safe. Without these measures, he does not have a snowball's chance in hell of escaping from months of lockdown purgatory. A mutant virus cannot wholly explain why we are in this mess or distract from the other failures that have led us here. The government ought to pursue a zero-COVID strategy that Independent Sage, a group of scientists, has long advocated.

Compliance should not and cannot rely upon coercion. Had the government been wiser in setting rules, and more effective in communicating the regulations and advice and the reasons for them, it would not now be in the absurd position of sending police to urge people not to board trains home.

Over this year, goodwill has not only been drained by the cumulative effect of lockdown, but squandered by official incompetence and the discovery that while millions are struggling economically, the chumocracy has prospered from government handouts dished out with little scrutiny. That the bulk of the public still wants to do the right thing is despite, not because of, the government.

FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE GUARDIAN