On 1 July 1916, the British Army attacked the German front line on the Somme in an ill-planned and over-ambitious offensive. Advancing soldiers were slaughtered by machine guns and artillery fire as they tried to struggle through unbroken barbed wire. The battle was to go on for 141 days, but on the first day alone the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead.
The man primarily responsible for the greatest disaster in British military history was General Sir Douglas Haig, whose over-optimistic planning under-estimated enemy strength and ignored lessons to be drawn from failures in earlier battles. Inspired by wishful thinking, Haig assured sceptical subordinates that the British would soon break the German line and he had five cavalry divisions waiting to exploit their victory.
A little over a century later, Boris Johnson has been facing the equivalent of a war in combating the Covid-19 epidemic. As with Haig at the Somme, he has shown over-confidence and poor judgement during the battle, leading to Britain suffering a greater loss of life than it might have under a more competent leader.
Nobody knows how many more British soldiers would have survived if Haig had not been the ultimate decision maker at the Somme, but in Johnson’s case one can be more precise about his lethal influence. On 29 May, the former chief scientific adviser to the government, Sir David King, said that, “40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if the government had reacted responsibly”. It locked down late, lifted restrictions too early, haphazardly ignored expert advice, and failed to learn from mistakes made during the first wave of the epidemic in the spring. It thereby guaranteed that there would be a second wave of infection, as bad or worse than anything experienced earlier in the year.
“I don’t have sympathy for the government making the same mistake twice,” says a scientist on the Sage advisory committee, quoted in a report by The Sunday Times Insight team. “We told them quite clearly what they needed to do for it [the lockdown] to work…They don’t do that. It has been wishful thinking all the way.” The report estimates that Johnson’s refusal, contrary to the views of the most senior members of his own government, to introduce stricter measures in September had already led to between 7,000 and 13,000 additional deaths by mid-December.
The latter figure is increasing by the day and is likely to jump sharply because of a loosening of restrictions during Christmas, something that could have been avoided if Sage’s firm advice for a “circuit-breaking” lockdown on 21 September had not been rejected by Johnson at the last moment. The estimate for excess deaths in Britain caused by government failings during the first and second waves of the epidemic now total about 50,000 people, adding together the estimates from Sir David King and The Sunday Times report, a number that will inevitably increase in the coming months.
The stellar career paths of both men towards high office, despite a notable lack of ability and accomplishment in each case, is a depressing illustration of the unchanging grip on power of the British social elite. Unsurprisingly, Johnson and Haig have personality traits and patterns of behaviour shaped by their upbringing and geared to furthering their ambitions. These include complete self-confidence stemming from a sense of entitlement and great skill in gaining and keeping power, though in my opinion, not in using it.