What Boris Johnson’s “Covid marshals” reveal about the government’s pandemic response

The shambles highlights persistent problems: a reliance on spin and short-term headlines, and a lack of respect for public bodies. 

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On the afternoon of Wednesday 9 September, Boris Johnson took to the No 10 press conference lectern, flanked by two sombre government scientists. It was a set-up seen every day during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and an indication that the rise in cases meant lockdown rules would be tightened. 

Speaking to the public, the Prime Minister announced a new measure that sounded either reassuring or draconian, depending on your view: the recruitment of “Covid-secure marshals”.

“We will boost the enforcement capacity of local authorities by introducing Covid-secure marshals to help ensure social distancing in town and city centres,” said Johnson.

Very quickly, this pledge unravelled – and revealed a great deal more about the government’s pandemic response than the proposal itself did.

Councils soon began asking how the recruitment and deployment of these marshals would be funded. They have already been denied full reimbursement of the extra money they have had to spend on fighting coronavirus, despite minsters promising at the beginning of the pandemic to cover their costs. Some are even facing bankruptcy.

[see also: Councils face bankruptcy as they try to prepare for a second wave of Covid-19]

At 11.57am the next day, the Local Government Chronicle was told by a spokesperson for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)  that there would be “no specific funding” available for the marshals, with a suggestion that they could be volunteers.

The Press Association news agency was told the same thing: local authorities would be “encouraged” to hire marshals, and use volunteers and existing council employees, spending money from their own budgets.

This government line was also reported by MailOnline that same afternoon.

An official spokesperson for the Prime Minister was also quoted by ITV, the Mirror, the i newspaper and multiple local publications such as the Birmingham Mail and North Norfolk News suggesting that councils use their own staff or recruit volunteers: “Obviously we have provided funding to councils in general as part of the Covid response but I’m not aware of anything specific [for marshals].”

This caused outcry from council representatives. “The government are saying that they have already given us funding and, even though this is a totally new responsibility not included in any of our returns to government, it should be paid for out of that funding,” tweeted Sevenoaks District Council leader Peter Fleming on Thursday afternoon (10 September).

“So councils like Harborough DC [District Council], which is still approx £1.6m out of pocket because of Covid-19, are expected to pick up the tab for yet another government proposal?” tweeted Phil King, leader of Harborough District Council in Leicestershire.

“All common sense seems to have drained out of central government,” says Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network. “Why would you set up a scheme so central to the fight against Covid and then fail to fund it? Worse, actually expect councils, already running out of money, to foot the bill. Something needs to change rapidly in Westminster or the battle to prevent a second wave is already lost.”

[see also Quietly, austerity has already become the response to coronavirus devastation]

Later on Thursday afternoon, at 3.01pm, a spokesperson from the MHCLG told the Local Government Chronicle that “details of funding will be set out in due course”, and insisted the original information given (that there would be no extra funding) was wrong.

That same day, it also emerged that the marshals would have no enforcement powers to fine or arrest people – they would only be able to give advice and guidance. This directly contradicted the Prime Minister’s announcement that they would “boost the local enforcement capacity”.

Local Government Chronicle journalist Sarah Calkin has reported on the confusion and the fallout in a piece headlined “The marshal debacle”, which also suggests councils and the communities ministry itself may have been “blindsided by the Prime Minister’s announcement”.

Indeed, Enfield Council leader and the chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, Nesil Caliskan, comments that the announcement has “caused confusion among councils who need urgent clarity from the government on any extra resources and details on how it should work on the ground”.

She warns that, “without additional funding to support this proposal, many councils are likely to have to prioritise other activity”, and adds: “Even if marshals were rolled out in great numbers, they will not have enforcement powers, so it is important that residents do not expect councils to be able to act when they cannot.”

Police officers were also “absolutely baffled” by the announcement, according to Ken Marsh, the chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation.

“What actually is [marshals'] role, what are we asking them to do?” he asked. “Because if they don’t actually have any powers, you know what Joe Public will do very quickly. When the stick needs to be wielded then you need to have the ability to wield it.”

One senior police source, speaking to the Telegraph, said: “It’s more Covid Wombles than marshals.”

[See also “Whatever it takes”: Has the government broken its promises to local councils?]

Marshals have already been used by councils in Leeds and Cornwall for tasks such as directing pedestrians and cleaning touchpoints, but this is the first time all councils have been “encouraged” to take on such responsibilities by a national announcement.

This shambles highlights some of the persistent problems in the government’s response to Covid-19: a reliance on spin and short-term headline-generating announcements, a lack of substance behind big ideas, and an apparent lack of respect for the public bodies involved.

After all, from the jumbled response of local authorities, police forces and the ministry itself, it appears that the details of the Covid-secure marshals scheme were not adequately finalised and/or briefed to the appropriate institutions before the Prime Minister’s speech.

“They [central government] need to talk to us, for heaven’s sake,” the leader of Portsmouth City Council Gerald Vernon-Jackson told Portsmouth News on Wednesday evening. “It’s just knee-jerky stuff from the government because they know they have made a mess of this.”

Of course, governments of all parties favour shiny new plans, spun to appeal to the maximum number of voters (in this case, a public concerned about its health). Yet in this context, amid so many U-turns, missed targets and broken promises, the risk is that ministers lose people’s trust and goodwill – which offer a far greater defence against the virus than any kind of street marshal.

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We are encouraging the introduction of Covid-secure marshals to help support our high streets and public spaces, making sure that people feel safe to enjoy them.

“Some areas of the country have already introduced marshals to support the public in following the guidelines in a friendly way and we will be working with local authorities to see where else they are needed.

“We will be setting out further details in due course.”

[See also: “Back off, Blackburn!” No 10’s plan to merge English neighbourhoods beyond recognition]

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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