Covid marshal funding and the surveillance of the public

Local authority covid marshals were initially financed with £30 million government funding, beginning in October 2020. Funding continued with a £400 million Contain Outbreak Management Fund, which includes continued enforcement and explanation of covid guidelines in the 2021-22 financial year.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) produced a ‘good practice framework‘ on authorities’ use of the initial funding round, which show how this money has financed a growth in council surveillance of the public.

There has been a growth of Covid compliance groups, where council and other authorities including the police share ‘intelligence’ on the conduct of businesses and members of the public. The document suggests that councils ‘Make effective use of local knowledge to focus compliance work’ and ‘Share anonymised data with other authorities’.

Oxfordshire set up a ‘COVID Compliance’ subgroup, which met weekly to share ‘data from contact tracing and “soft intelligence” from partner organisations’. East Sussex County Council organised ‘weekly intelligence sharing’ meetings between Brighton and Hove council, environmental health officers and Sussex Police.

Lancaster City Council organised a ‘Covid Safe’ award scheme, which left a QR code at the premises inviting customer feedback on the conduct of the business. This system worked as a way of keeping an eye on the business:

Poor feedback will trigger a visit by the Covid-Safe team. The scheme keeps the council and businesses in touch, helping businesses with any changes to guidelines, ensuring they remain compliant and that they understand customer concerns.  Unannounced visits by a member of the team also ensure that they keep compliant, and where they still fall short after feedback, their certificate will be removed.

Burnley Council said that it ‘continued to develop their compliance and enforcement work’, and ‘used intelligence to identify sectors of concern at distinct stages of lockdown’. This included monitoring of, and focus on, ‘beauty salons, hairdressers, and barbers’, particularly ‘within the BAME community’ which were ‘non-compliant’. This led to ‘further targeted interventions’ and a ‘robust proactive presence in the area’ and ‘follow up visits to ensure compliance’.

In Cornwall, the district council used funds for the ‘multi-agency representatives’ in ‘Falmouth Safe Group’ to patrol the town, residential and beach areas between 8pm and 3am, 7 days a week. The council also said that it allocated funds from enforcement grants to ‘target compliance activities’ in holiday areas, including dealing with ‘anti-social behavioural issues’.

The document shows how central government used councils throughout the pandemic, as a vehicle to communicate and explain government policy. The local authority was asked to be a PR body to communicate the latest covid restrictions to a local public. The MHCLG stated:

The council…acts (as) a trusted source of information for the community. Council communications can help explain changing regulations, manage public expectation, and reduce the risk of compliance fatigue. This opens opportunities to capitalise on direct engagement to promote behaviours that lean towards compliance by businesses and through to the public, supported by implementing clear and broader communication.

In this vein, the communications and marketing team at Liverpool City Council used social media to reinforce ‘messages around good behaviour’. When Cornwall Council issued a fine to a sports club for non-compliance, they ‘reinforced their enforcement action by publishing details on their website and tweeting about it’.

The framework document also states that the MHCLG has worked with the Behavioural Insight Team in the Cabinet Office, to produce slides for councils on ‘applying behavioural science’ to encourage venues and members of the public to follow guidance.

Overall, this document shows how public funds were used during the pandemic to extend council surveillance of the public. Given that this funding window will continue for at least the next financial year, this suggests that it could have long-lasting effects on council practice and structures.