Brinkmanship or Bluster? On Brexit and Pandemic, Boris Johnson Leaves It Late

That vitiated the government’s goal of curbing social contacts in the face of a new variant of the coronavirus that British officials said spreads far faster than the original strain. Indeed, the escapees from London are likely to spread the virus throughout the country, which reported 35,928 new cases on Sunday.

On the pandemic, critics say Mr. Johnson’s scattershot policies have eroded public trust in the government. He has repeatedly ruled out lockdowns, only to reverse course with the assertion that the scientific evidence had changed. The mixed messages have left many confused and cynical about the rules.

In the latest about-face, Mr. Johnson cited new evidence that the variant was up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original virus — data that he said was presented to his cabinet on Friday. Independent scientists generally back up his concern about the variant. But British public health officials said on Sunday that they had first identified the variant in October from a sample taken in September.

The government first disclosed the variant — as well as concerns that it might spread more quickly — last Monday when it placed London and other parts of southern and eastern Britain into what was then the highest level of restrictions. But two days later, Mr. Johnson reaffirmed his promise to relax restrictions from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27 so that families could get together for Christmas.

When the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, suggested in Parliament that Mr. Johnson should rethink that plan, the prime minister mocked him. “I wish he’d had the guts to just say what he really wants to do,” Mr. Johnson said, “which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas.”

Now, of course, the prime minister has done exactly that — only he waited three more days, during which even more people made travel plans. On Sunday, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Austria all banned flights from Britain.

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