It may seem a long time ago now, but in September last year, Boris Johnson introduced the concept of “Covid-secure marshals”, which he said would “boost the enforcement capacity of local authorities” in fighting the pandemic.
Many wondered what these Covid marshals would look like exactly, particularly as the Government had not set out any guidance or funding for them at the time.
The next month it announced £30 million for “district and unitary authorities including metropolitan borough and London borough councils in England to spend on COVID-19 related compliance and enforcement activities”, setting out a suggested scope for what a Covid marshal’s duties might look like.
To see the general purpose of a Covid marshal, one need only look at the website of Southampton City Council, which has introduced these representatives to “patrol the city and district centres” and “engage, explain and encourage businesses and members of the public to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines to help keep everyone safe.”
So what’s happened to the recruitment drive several months on? To get a sense of where it’s at, I phoned a number of councils around the country and asked how many marshals they’d hired, if any at all.
The first interesting finding was that several receptionists did not know what a Covid marshal was, and one even asked me to explain what they were.
A Manchester council and East Midlands council told me they each had four marshals. Ashford Borough Council confirmed it had one Covid marshal and Leeds City Council said it had been recruiting for Covid marshals before Christmas.
Councils have been given vastly different sums of money to spend on their marshals, with the highest funds going to Leeds (£485,826), Manchester (£453,047) and Sheffield (£348,384).
Richmond Council, which has received £75,000 in funding to recruit marshals, said it had hired six, although its leader has said “it isn’t enough to make sure that all our high streets have a marshal at all times.” It’s still better than the City of London, the Isle of Scilly and Rutland, which received £13,000 each.
To see how much is being put towards the new wave of Covid-related jobs I looked at the website of Durham County Council, which is on the hunt for a “Covid-19 Outbreak Control Practitioner” (the salary is £36,922-£40,876 per annum). Duties include “ensuring the implementation of the Local Outbreak Control Plan” and promoting “measures that build longer-term community resilience to prevent future outbreaks.”
Interestingly, when I Googled Covid marshal jobs it seems that something of a new industry has formed, with one construction site on the hunt for someone to fulfil this function. A recruiter has even put up an advert for a “COVID-19 marshal to work at a local authority based in North London”.
When I asked my Facebook friends if they’d seen any Covid marshals, people mentioned spotting them in Soho, Parson’s Green/ Fulham, Horsham, Faversham and Chichester City Centre, so there are clear signs of their presence.
But from my brief look into marshals, it seems to me that nothing particularly astonishing is happening in terms of recruitment drive – which may come as a relief to lockdown sceptics worried about a state takeover. Most councils don’t seem to be hiring anywhere enough to make a sizeable impact on the streets, and the fact some of their representatives don’t know what a marshal is says a lot.
It’s worth adding that the Government has not told councils that they have to hire Covid marshals, as the funding is simply ringfenced for “COVID-19 related compliance and enforcement activities”. Even so, the documentation hints heavily that it should go towards marshals, with details around what sorts of activities they could be doing and how they could be trained.
With councils being given £30 million, it will be interesting to see the final breakdown of how it’s been spent.