Covid Marshals: Do we trust in society?

An essay reviewing the role and function of Covid Marshals, by Nikolas Koch.

When introducing ‘COVID-secure marshals’, Boris Johnson suggested they would ‘help ensure social distancing in town and city centres’. Marshals should ‘support members of the public in one-way systems and remind them of guidelines,’ or ‘give out masks and hand sanitiser in public places’. In reality, the role of COVID marshals continues to be ambiguous, broadly defined, and most importantly, without formal enforcement powers. Marshals can ‘advise’ and highlight failures to comply with coronavirus legislation but not officially sanction those who ignore guidelines. Often, it remains unclear what marshals actually do. Partly due to this, COVID marshals have also had little to no practical effect throughout the country. In a BBC survey, 70% of responding local councils had no marshals, no plans to introduce them or were waiting for further guidance.

Besides what the implementation of this marshal scheme tells us about the government’s ability to enact policy proposals coherently, COVID marshals are also symbolic for long-standing questions of trust and responsibility in British society. These issues directly link to the state of democracy in the UK. As Josie Appleton suggests on a Manifesto Club blog, COVID marshals are merely the latest instance of a ‘officious warden’ proliferating in the last decades. Appleton estimates that there are 10,000 neighbourhood or street wardens and over two thousand ‘accredited persons’ (private individuals with police powers), while dozens of councils employ private security guards to issue fines for minor misdemeanours.

For Appleton, such marshals have a purpose in ‘extending regulation over social life’, intending to ‘colonise civil society with standardised forms of thought and behaviour’. Certainly, the growth of officials is an important facet in the development of British society. Coronavirus marshals are the latest iteration of wardens in a society that is increasingly policed. Most importantly, coronavirus marshals’ vague job description risks an overreach of  power without any accountability (for example, in one case Covid marshals were called to a restaurant after a row over a free scotch egg offer).

On the one hand, volunteer officials’ mere existence is hardly a recent development in the UK – for example, air raid wardens were central in communities during the Blitz. Equally, there have always been individuals criticised for being ‘inquisitive’ or ‘busybodies’. However, COVID marshals are significant not merely because of their actual impact but also because of what they represent. The existence of marshals is notable because of why individuals feel it is necessary to supervise society and each other.

Most importantly, the long-term decline of trust in British society has encouraged this desire to regulate society and others’ behaviour. COVID marshals exist because individuals feel that they cannot trust others and desire an official authority to moderate and referee social interactions. This indicates a worrying trend in UK democracy. While we should be sceptical of labelling any ‘golden age’ of society, recent decades suggest that political and social discontent is increasing in the UK. Anecdotal evidence during the coronavirus crisis also confirms this conclusion. During the pandemic, police forces have received a plethora of tip-offs for misdemeanours including everything from neighbours sunbathing in the garden to those going for a second run or dog walk. In total, the police received almost 200,000 calls in only the first month of lockdown. Overall, calls reporting anti-social behaviour in April more than doubled compared to 2019. Partly, this can be explained because more individuals were at home, perhaps restless, worried or with little to do. Nevertheless, a proportion of the population clearly feels little sense of local solidarity and either mistrust or cannot engage with their community and neighbours. As suspicion has grown, external arbiters are needed to police everyday interaction – this is the role of COVID marshals. COVID marshals are symbolic of a longer- term problem of trust in UK society and democracy.

From an official perspective, COVID marshals also play an important role in legitimising government action. Trust is declining not only in society but also in the government’s response to coronavirus. A poll showed that in November 2020, only 38% of respondents trusted the government’s response to coronavirus, down from 69% in April 2020. In this context, it is significant that COVID marshals were introduced so late in the pandemic timeline – almost six months after the first lockdown.

COVID marshals were introduced not as a public policy necessity, but to show that policing the pandemic is being taken seriously. Indeed, the Cabinet and police federations were hardly consulted regarding the introduction of marshals, as even the Home Secretary was informed only 45 minutes before the plan’s official announcement. A lack of coordination was also highlighted in the intial financing debacle surrounding the marshals.

The introduction of COVID marshals was more about political spin than substance. Essentially, they are a tool to justify government action. As previous commentators have suggested, the decline of political and societal participation has encouraged governments to legitimise their actions and engage communities through alternative means. For example, political discourse now incorporates consumer activists and interest groups in addition to traditional democratic participation. Similarly, by using COVID marshals the government hopes that coronavirus rules will garner more acceptance as they are symbolically enforced by and for the people. The idea of coronavirus marshals is based on an incoherent but laudable attempt of community involvement, personifying how we all must work together to contend with COVID-19.

Perhaps, one should commend the government’s attempt to incorporate society into the battle against coronavirus – if successful, the marshals could have been a positive example of self-determination in British democracy. Some local areas may well benefit or feel more involved in government by introducing coronavirus marshals. Often, the marshals themselves are also harmless. They have even been dismissed as little more than ‘COVID Wombles’ – like the mystical creatures of Wimbledon Common, they exist, but have little practical influence on the realities of human life.

Nevertheless, that the government has encouraged what at worst can seem like unaccountable ‘busybodies and curtain-twitchers’ to posts of official authority is foolish and even democratically damaging. Especially given the restrictions which coronavirus regulations place on civil liberties and the economic and social damage they cause, it is vital that society be policed by consent. Instead, marshals are another ill-concieved role that risks emboldening some to act, reprimand or punish without any clear legal right to do so.

There is already a multiplicity of reports of some COVID marshals acting heavy-handedly or as a mere extension to the police. Ultimately, irrespective of whether marshals act in the public interest or not, the idea that authority should be accountable is an important democratic principle. Regarding coronavirus marshals, this is the most illuminating aspect concerning democracy in the UK.

COVID marshals are intended to involve communities and generate legitimacy in a united, national fight against coronavirus. In reality, a government claiming to be ‘taking back control’ has instead given power to an actual form of unelected, unaccountable officials.

Nikolas Koch is a MA student in Contemporary European Politics, Policy and Society at the University of Bath, Sciences Po Grenoble and Humboldt-Universität Berlin.