DEBATE: Are Covid marshals a step towards a surveillance state?

Victoria Hewson and Tom Spencer

April 19, 2021

Victoria Hewson, Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues YES

First announced and funded in autumn last year, deployment of Covid marshals is part of central government guidance to local authorities.  Marshals expressly have no formal powers of enforcement (which remain with the police); their role includes “signposting” the public and businesses towards government guidance and identifying businesses and premises that are not following guidance, “escalating as appropriate”.

This is a slide not so much to a police state as an escalation of our increasingly managerial state: democratic law-making is bypassed in favour of executive-issued guidance, and formal enforcement under limitations of the rule of law is abandoned in favour of encouragement and threats by hi-viz jacketed council workers.

The police notoriously struggled to understand and enforce the Coronavirus Act and Regulations that comprised binding law, routinely over-interpreting guidance as law, and even breaking up a church service on the basis of what officers considered to be “safe”.

The repeal of mandatory business closures and stay-at-home orders should not entail empowering civilian monitors to take their place in surveilling the population’s adherence to guidance, though. A big brother mentality where central government and local authorities do not trust individuals to carry on legitimate activities without officious oversight threatens liberty and good governance.

Tom Spencer, the Chief Organiser of the London Neoliberals, and a Young Voices Contributor, aruges NO

We are the most watched nation in the Western World. As revealed by Edward Snowden, every single thing you do on the internet can be (and is) tracked by GCHQ. When you step outside you’ll be watched by the millions of CCTV cameras, some of which were used to monitor people leaving their homes during the pandemic.

Steve “Hardman” Baker, the normally excellent Conservative MP, has warned that the Covid marshal scheme risks turning our public spaces into airport security. However, Baker’s criticism misses the mark and fails to properly understand the powers Covid marshals have and what they’re used for. 

So, what are these Covid marshals that are seizing our freedoms? In effect, they’re people hired by the council to go into public places to perform evil and tyrannous tasks like helping businesses manage queues, assisting with the cleaning of surfaces, and reminding people to wear a face mask. Can they mandate that you do anything? No more than any other citizen can. They have no powers of arrest, no powers to stop you, and none to fine you either. 

Those of us who are sceptical of increasing government surveillance should instead look at campaigns from Amnesty International, who have judicially reviewed the industrial surveillance conducted by GCHQ; or Big Brother Watch and their campaign against domestic vaccine passports. These should be the focus of those wishing to prevent the rise of the surveillance state. Focussing on Covid marshals will only serve to make us all seem rather silly and overly fixated on insignificant non-issues.

Author

  • Victoria Hewson is the Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Tom Spencer is the Chief Organiser of the London Neoliberals and a Young Voices Contributor.

Written by Victoria Hewson and Tom Spencer

Victoria Hewson is the Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Tom Spencer is the Chief Organiser of the London Neoliberals and a Young Voices Contributor.

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