'Waste of time' - Police in Leeds where coronavirus marshals were used said they had 'no idea' they existed

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Police officers were not aware of a warden scheme in Leeds which the Government has made an exemplar in a national crackdown to prevent large gatherings and halt the spread of coronavirus, it has emerged.

The effectiveness of new coronavirus marshals, which the Government hopes will be rolled out across the country to take the strain off officers enforcing guidelines, has been called into question after the chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation said he was not aware of a scheme piloted in Leeds, and that without powers the new wardens would be useless.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that coronavirus marshals would “boost the local enforcement capacity” as he unveiled new rules designed to slow the spread.

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And the Government said they had already been deployed by Leeds City Council and Cornwall Council, with other local authorities now “encouraged” to hire marshals, or use volunteers and existing council employees, with money from their own budgets.

West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Brian Booth. Photo: SubmittedWest Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Brian Booth. Photo: Submitted
West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Brian Booth. Photo: Submitted

However the scheme in Leeds lasted just four weeks over the summer, with 18 marshals in total, and a police leader said he had not even been aware they were in place.

A Leeds City Council spokesperson said a team of 12 ambassadors were introduced in July to support reopening of non-essential retail in the city, which has an estimated population of nearly 800,000.

They said these were council staff reassigned from their normal roles and six night marshals were also employed by an external provider, which were welcomed.

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But the project had ended and the spokesperson said: “We have recently been in discussions with the Government regarding these schemes and we are currently awaiting further details about any potential reintroduction so we can be prepared to use them again as required."

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said the marshals would probably wear high-visibility clothing to “support members of the public in one-way systems and remind them of guidelines”.

Other tasks could be to “give out masks and hand sanitiser in public places,” she added.

But they would not be given enforcement powers in new legislation banning people in England from meeting in groups of more than six from Monday, prompting Brian Booth, chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, to brand them a "waste of time".

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He said officers had “no idea” about the idea before the PM made the announcement, or that they had already been trialled in Leeds, and he said: “I’ve got an idea of what I would like, where we would have public health wardens and their priority would be to go round and enforce the Covid rules and have the ability to issue a fine.

“Come Monday, I don’t know what the Government expects, we’re snowed under with normal police work.

“We would like these people to have some proper powers, where they could go into pubs and serve a notice on landlords if they are breaking coronavirus rules and if the landlord resists we will come and assist them."

Mr Booth said: “They’re going to be okay if they are dealing with law-abiding citizens, but come Monday our lines are going to go red hot, it’s what happened last time.”

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Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, echoed the concerns and said rank-and-file officers have been left “absolutely baffled” by the announcement.

He said: “Any help is good help but what I’d like to understand is what actually is their role, what are we asking them to do?

“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.”

He added: “The Prime Minister told everyone [Wednesday] as if we all fully understood it.”

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He added: “It won’t make any difference to enforcement if you don’t have the ability to enforce.

“If this increases the ability to enforce then it helps with enforcement, but if they don’t have any powers to issue tickets to enforce.”

Nesil Caliskan, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA’s) Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “We need to quickly see further detail on how the Government’s Covid-19-secure marshal scheme is intended to work, and any new responsibilities for councils in this area will have to be fully funded.”

Downing Street suggested no extra funding would be made available for marshals.

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The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “So far, councils have I think been using their own staff or they have been volunteers.

“Obviously we have provided funding to councils in general as part of the Covid response but I’m not aware of anything specific.”

An MHCLG spokeswoman added: “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.”

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Legislation set to replace the existing ban on gatherings of more than 30 people and current guidance on allowing two households to meet indoors is yet to be published.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to sign off on the changes, under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, over the weekend, with previous restrictions brought into law just hours before coming into force.

People breaching the new restrictions could be fined £100, which will double with every subsequent offence up to £3,200.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said police chiefs emphasised the importance “of ensuring the public understand the rules in place through clear regulations and communication”, in a meeting with Mr Johnson.

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But Mr Marsh cast doubt on Government claims the new legislation will simplify the rules and make enforcement easier.

“Tell me what’s easier or what’s simpler with this, compared to any of the others,” he said.

“There’s got to be some clarity of what they’re trying to get across.”

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