All across the land there is a small band of Britons who have been waiting in the wings for their moment to step up and do their bit to defeat the pandemic. On Wednesday evening, as the Prime Minister hosted a briefing to explain new lockdown measures taking effect from Monday, it looked as if it might finally be time for them to shine.
Enter the Covid Secure Marshals: a Home Guard of sorts (though not one Captain Mainwaring would have deigned to lead), whose mission will be to bolster the enforcement capacity of local authorities on our streets.
Boris Johnson “want[s] to see, and the public wants to see, stronger enforcement of the rules already in place,” he said, explaining that socialising in public will from next week come with stricter rules and regulations. “Premises and venues where people meet socially will be legally required to request the contact details of every party, record and retain these details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace when required.”
The marshals - a role with a reported salary of £30k pa - will be dispatched to check up on pubs and restaurants, with venues being fined if they “fail to ensure their premises remain Covid secure.”
So what exactly does it take to be a member of this new tranche of pandemic police? Is it, as many suspect, simply a task for the nation’s curtain twitchers? A role for parking attendants on a power trip? Or is it a serious job with proper legislative clout?
When asked yesterday about these measures - which critics had by then dismissed as “draconian”, an unnecessary waste of resource, and if nothing else downright anti-liberty - Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Radio 4’s Today programme there was nothing “new” about the concept of Covid marshals.
“I don’t think it’s really new. In my area we have people called Street Wardens who are marshals on the streets. And they typically look after the neighbourhood. They would be ideal people to be marshals employed by the council. Just to remind people - ‘Face mask on’.
In Shapps’s constituency of Welwyn Hatfield, the town centre has been populated with marshals since June. Though one, Brittany Melly, 30, whose events company was hired by the council to work in the town centre when lockdown was eased, tells me their role has been very light touch and involves giving out hand sanitiser and “being on hand” for people unsure of how to navigate one way walking systems. “We were out there more as a customer service type role rather than enforcement.”
The “Street Wardens” of whom Shapps speaks, however, sound a rather more militant bunch who, according to the council, perform “daily patrols on the streets, open spaces and estates”, “deter anti social behaviour” and “report suspicious behaviour to the police and other enforcement agencies.”
They are also, incidentally, supposed to help “develop community spirit and foster civic pride”. If the general reaction to Wednesday’s announcement is anything to go by, one imagines that a dose of community spirit might not be quite what a platoon of Covid marshals would inspire.
How much “enforcement” the feted Covid marshals will actually be able to wield remains to be seen. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has said local authorities will run these schemes, not the Government, so remuneration, recruitment and how many marshals to put on the streets will be down to individual councils.
Nesil Caliskan, chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, which would oversee marshals plan, has called the announcement “ridiculous” and “a bit of a gimmick” as no extra money had been set aside for these new roles.
Rather, local authorities will have to decide for themselves if they wanted to hire them. It is “really dangerous” to give residents the impression they “have legislative powers when enforcement is the responsibility of police”, Caliskan added. “What a recipe for disaster for community tension... this idea [has been] plucked out of the air.”
All over Britain we have grown somewhat accustomed to having our movements monitored over the past few months, and many local authorities have already deployed marshals this summer in tourist hotspots. In Devon and Cornwall, the police commissioner funded a “Summer Safety Team”, which installed marshals and CCTV in places like Dartmoor, Newquay and St Ives.
James Watson, 30, has been working as a marshall in Newquay and St Ives over the summer. He has worked in security for many years so is accustomed to a bit of animosity on the streets. “It’s very much water off a duck’s back. We do expect people to be difficult. They can be, especially night times in Newquay,” he says.
“Of course you get complications and alcohol-fuelled emotions. For us really we’ve been quite lucky. I suppose people feel advantaged that they’re able to actually go on holiday. Obviously you do get the small minority who may not be so compliant, but that’s mainly been local people.”
Instances of tension between lockdown enforcement officers and members of the public haven’t always gone smoothly in the past few months. Last week, a man was charged in Liverpool with assaulting a police officer who asked him to wear a mask on the train. And in July, Sadiq Khan revealed there had been over 20,000 “interactions” with passengers to enforce the compulsory requirement to wear a face covering on public transport, with 61 fixed penalty notices issued by British Transport Police or TfL officials.
It’s understood the marshals will have no legislative powers themselves. They’ll merely be there to remind people of the rules. But while Watson and his colleagues - who work for a security company given a contract by the Devon and Cornwall police commissioner at the start of the summer - can handle a bit of bad behaviour from mask naysayers, he points out volunteer marshals might find it tougher as “they’re not experienced.
We’d normally be working festivals and events around the country. Dealing with people antisocially, we’re quite good because we can talk people down and de-escalate things without having to get the police involved, and save their resources where we can.
“There have been instances, but we’re quite lucky that we have a good relationship with the local chief inspector.” How, then, might a wave of newbies fare?
Outside of the West Country, police have expressed concern that the proposed scheme could generate more Covid related complaints at a time when crime is back to pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, a senior police source questioned the effectiveness of the marshals if they have no executive powers. “It’s more Covid wombles than marshals,” they quipped.
And so, we await a deployment of well-meaning wombles in our midst to keep us in check. Wombles with no funding, no executive powers, and no clear plan or purpose. On second thoughts, perhaps it is all a bit Dad’s Army after all.