The government has announced a new band of ‘Covid marshals’, to patrol Britain’s streets and ensure that no-one is breaking social distancing rules.
They will remind people to keep a two-metre distance, enforce one-way pavements, and break up groups of more than six.
The Local Government Association (LGA) and police were critical of the announcement, because it has not been costed, nor the wardens given proper powers. But in fact, these institutions – and a whole class of officials – are entirely ready for this development. There is, ready and waiting, a class of wardens absolutely primed for this role.
This is the latest incarnation of the yellow-jacketed busybody in public spaces, which has developed over the past 10-20 years. We have become familiar with the generic officious warden, who goes around telling people off for whatever it is they are doing. They tell buskers they need a licence, or say that leafleting is banned, or they ask groups of young people to disperse.
There are thousands of these officers. There are an estimated 10,000 neighbourhood or street wardens, over two thousand ‘accredited persons’ (private individuals given police powers), while dozens of councils employ private security guards to issue fines for minor misdemeanors.
It will be very natural for some or all of these officers to shift into policing social distancing.
As I argued in my book, Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, these new wardens do not have any defined public function or role, nor do they have any particular allegiance. Instead, the officious officer is ‘set against free social life itself’, and ‘any relationship based on spontaneity and mutual trust’. They will interfere in any unregulated activity, and see any gathering (of young people, of crowds) as a public order problem or potential ‘anti-social behaviour’.
The policing of spontaneous social life has always been the subtext of these officials’ job description. Now, with Covid social distancing, it is their actual job.
And we really, really do not want them to be given actual fining powers.