Local Councils Say They Have No Idea How They Can Pay For Boris Johnson's "Covid Marshals"
Boris Johnson’s new “Covid-19 marshals” plan has been met with fury by cash-strapped councils who say they have no idea how to pay for them.
The new marshals are expected to patrol city and town centres to make sure people don’t break the rule banning more than six people gathering in England.
Nick Forbes, the leader of Labour-run Newcastle City Council, said he had zero notice of the proposal until it was announced by Johnson at his press conference on Wednesday.
“We’ve got more chance of landing the first woman on the moon by Monday than we have of recruiting, security vetting and training thousands of new staff to be operational by the time the law is introduced next week,” he said.
“There’s wide-spread incredulity across the whole of local government today that the government has announced something to be in place by the beginning of next week which needs funding, and where will the people come from?
“This is an incomprehensible way of dealing with a crisis. There’s widespread anger and consternation among councils. This is another thing landing on their doorstep.
“It’s serial incompetence.”
Directing pedestrians and cleaning buttons at zebra crossings might also be among their tasks, according to brief details released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. They will not have the power to arrest people.
The government has said more details will be released but that there is no additional funding for the roles on top of the extra money given to councils for their Covid response.
Newcastle City Council, which is already due to set in train £32 million emergency budget cuts this month because of the pandemic, has so far committed all of the £21.7m the government gave it to help with the response to buying personal protective equipment and supporting those who had to isolate.
“Being asked to do this, on top of the existing financial blackhole makes the situation even worse,” Mr Forbes said.
Cornwall Council’s Safer Summer Marshals scheme and Leeds City Council’s night marshals were the inspiration for the policy, the government has said.
The Local Government Association, which represents 335 councils in England, was taken aback by the announcement yesterday and held a series of meetings today about how to respond.
Nesil Caliskan, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “It is right that councils will be able to choose whether marshals are the best way to manage COVID-19 risks in their local areas. However, without additional funding to support this proposal, many councils are likely to have to prioritise other activity.”
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council – where the government supposedly took inspiration – said they were scrambling to make sense of Johnson’s announcement and exactly which marshal scheme they meant.
Their night marshals were from an external agency and paid for by the local authority for four weeks when the pubs first reopened. The city also has ambassadors provided by Leeds Business Improvement District.
“These things have got to be properly funded,” said Blake.
“And who is going to train them?”
She said marshals would be welcome considering the number of students the city will have in a few weeks time, and as numbers of cases are going up.
Islington council leader Richard Watts said the marshals strategy can’t work if there isn’t a fixed model on how they operate as currently each authority is being lef to decide for themselves.
“This is ill thought through. It’s a gimmick that’s unravelling,” he said.
He said Islington is still yet to receive all the money it has spent on its Covid response from central government and much of it has already been spent on PPE, making it difficult for them to suddenly fund marshals.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said they will "help the public with social contact measures that are in place", and "they don't have any powers to issue fines that is the job of the police".
"It's for the police if there is any enforcement action that needs to be taken."
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for comment.
Correction: The marshals were announced at the Prime Minister's press conference on Wednesday 9 September. An earlier version of this post misstated the date.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe