Dominic Cummings criticised the British government response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a case of “lions led by donkeys”, a phrase commonly used to describe British military leaders in the First World War. He may have intended simply to abuse Boris Johnson and some of his ministers as catastrophically inept, but the comparison is valid and revealing.
In the four-month Battle of the Somme in 1916 some 125,000 British soldiers were killed compared to 127,000 dead so far in the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Nobody has any doubt that the catastrophic loss of life in the First World War battle was greatly increased by the incompetent and overconfident leadership of General Sir Douglas Haig and General Sir Henry Rawlinson, who was in charge of day-to-day operations. Haig had earlier saved Rawlinson from being sacked so he felt compelled to carry out whatever his commander-in-chief told him to do, even when he knew that Haig’s decisions were wrong and likely to lead to the mass killing of British soldiers.
The similarities between Haig and Rawlinson a century ago and Johnson and Matt Hancock today are striking. In all four cases, leaders out of their depth turned a crisis into a calamity, but never paid a personal price for their failure because of subsequent British successes for which they claimed credit.
Shock has been expressed over Cummings’s claim that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die”, though this has long been demonstrably true. Had the second lockdown started earlier and gone on longer the second wave of the epidemic may not have happened or would have been less severe. Given that out of the 127,000 fatalities from Covid-19 some 87,000 people died between October 2020 and 31 March 2021, Johnson’s misjudgements provably led to needless deaths in their tens of thousands. If these easily verifiable facts came as a surprise to many this week, it may be because a feeble Labour opposition has avoided highlighting them.
Nor is there any doubt about the grim consequences of chaotic and possibly corrupt PPE procurement, vastly expensive but failed Test and Trace – and borders open to travel from heavily infected countries. Most fascinating about Cummings’s evidence was not that he revealed anything new about these fiascos, but his eyewitness account of the political interactions that produced them.
The problem about fairly attributing blame for the unnecessary deaths is that all governments seek to claim credit for what goes right, even when they had nothing to do with it, and to avoid blame for what goes wrong, even when they were culpably responsible. The pretence on their part, accepted by some of the media, is that they are in charge and have a firm grip on the levers of power, even when they are no longer connected to anything.
In Britain a price has had to be paid in lives for the hollowing out of state institutions by austerity, outsourcing and privatisation over the past four decades. Countries that coped well with the pandemic are those which had spare capacity in their health systems. The first casualty from any cuts is provisions for emergencies which are unforeseeable and may never happen. Cummings blames Hancock and the Department of Health for allowing untested elderly patients to carry Covid-19 from hospitals to care homes, but where could they have been sent last year as the hospitals filled up?
Credible lines of defence like this should be open to Johnson and Hancock, but they probably cannot use them because who can now trust what they said at the time about being in control and capable of protecting the care homes and their doomed population?
A broader explanation for the high death rate is simply that the British state is calamitously poor at handling the opening stages of extreme crises, regardless of whether they come in the shape of a human enemy or a deadly virus. Compare the British response to the Covid-19 pandemic not just with the first years of the First and Second World Wars, but with earlier wars – from those in revolutionary France in the 1790s to the Crimea when somebody blundered, to the Boer War and the world wars. In all cases, it took a long time for the British state to get its act together. In the more minor conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan this century, it never did.
Cummings was surprised by this incapacity, insufficiently recognising that there is a crucial difference between peacetime and wartime government, each requiring different people in charge and different types of organisation. In the case of a war, dictatorial powers may be needed, mobilising all resources – and Cummings said he wanted such a dictator in charge of combating the coronavirus – but in normal times that is exactly what is not wanted and does not work.
Changing gears between these two contradictory approaches will always be difficult, particularly when the driver of the engine is somebody with poor and wavering judgement like Johnson.
So how far is the present government guilty of mishandling an unprecedented crisis? As a sort of an associate member of the club of populist-nationalist leaders, Johnson shares some of their disaster-prone characteristics. These were vividly on display over the last year in the US under Donald Trump, India under Narendra Modi and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro. Their multiple failings include demagoguery that exaggerates and exploits imaginary threats but is no good at dealing with real ones. Another common feature is a cult of personality which projects a leader who can do no wrong and cannot admit mistakes, denying that anything is going very wrong until it is too late to do much to stop it.
Will Johnson and his government get away with disclaiming responsibility for the disasters of last year and the unnecessary deaths of so many people? They very likely will, because the public understandably prefers thinking about good news today rather than dwelling on bad news yesterday.
Emphasising present British success against the virus and downplaying past failure is felt to be a patriotic duty. Johnson and his ministers will claim that they are too fully occupied in running the vaccination campaign – though this is very largely the work of the scientists and the NHS – to be bothered by ancient history, even when that history may have taken place only six months ago.
A similar approach worked well for Haig and Rawlinson whose careers were undamaged by the slaughter of the Somme over which they had presided. After making covert and semi-successful efforts to doctor the historic record, they went on holding top jobs and the victims of their incompetence were in no position to complain.