A third of students report uncomfortable interaction with Covid marshals in new survey

Ruby Story Dartford on the tension between students and various COVID-19 enforcement agents

Ruby Story Dartford
7th December 2020
Image: Greg Luckhurst on Twitter
Further disputes with Covid marshals have come to light after The Courier conducted a survey encouraging students to share their experiences with enforcement officers.

Participants were asked to describe the interactions they had had with authorities – including the police and private security workers – regarding COVID-19 restrictions.

Of the people who had interacted with a covid marshal, 75.9% said the interaction felt uncomfortable. Meanwhile, 55.5% of interactions with police officers felt uncomfortable. When asked about private security workers specifically, 65% of people who had had an interaction said it had made them uncomfortable. 55% said it had made them very uncomfortable.

45.9% of respondents had interacted with a covid marshal, meaning 36% of students reported an uncomfortable interaction with a covid marshal overall.

44.3% of respondents had interacted with a police officer. As such, 24.6% of students reported an uncomfortable interaction with a police officer overall.

When approached for comment, a spokesman for Newcastle University stated "A meeting has been set up between the two universities [Newcastle and Northumbria], Newcastle City Council and Northumbria Police to look at how we can address some of these concerns before next term."

Currently, Newcastle City Council contracts Phoenix Security for SIA-licenced [Security Industry Authority] patrols. These private contractors are known less formally as Covid marshals.

Operation Oak is Northumbria Police’s initiative to patrol student areas, but these patrols are separate from Covid marshals. Newcastle and Northumbria Universities put over £125 000 into Operation Oak, but do not directly contract private security firms or hire Covid marshals.

Speaking to The Courier, Northumbria Police cited "unprecedented times" to explain its power to enter homes to verify compliance with restrictions. The Police explained this is "it is not specific to our student communities", and insisted that "all members of the public are treated the same".

Covid marshals, however, appear to be being hired specifically to patrol student areas.

The Police added that "Many student properties have large numbers of residents and this can be mistaken for a party by those who report breaches to police. Officers are duty bound to investigate those concerns and, as a result of those reports, we have disrupted a number of parties and issued a number of fines."

The Police thanked students for their "co-operation during the pandemic", explaining that the majority had abided by COVID-19 restrictions. In a Q&A with the Students' Union, Northumbria Police Chief Inspector Steve Wykes explained "it's really important to point out that it's a minority" of students who aren't complying.

Covid marshals have targeted the suburb of Jesmond as a trouble spot for those breaking social distancing rules, particularly during the second lockdown. The suburb is a popular location for students, with 55.7% of all survey participants situated in the area.

Many participants expressed concern at the increasing number of covid marshals patrolling the streets. One participant commented "you’re made to feel as though you’ve committed a crime by simply living in Jesmond", whilst another added "we don’t feel safe in Jesmond anymore".

68.9% of those who completed the survey were women. One respondent stated "two marshals made derogatory comments about my breasts".

The same respondent also further reported that she had been followed home by the marshal. Due to these incidents, she said she feels "unsafe in a place I should call home". Another respondent commented that enforcement officials had exhibited "creepy behaviour towards female flatmates".

According to the survey, 38.9% of men had had an encounter with Covid marshals, compared to 47.6% of women. When the wording was changed to ask specifically about private security workers, 38.9% of men reported an encounter, compared to 26.2% of women.

Speaking to The Courier, Newcastle City Council insisted that "We aim to maintain the highest standards when interacting with the public".

The Council explained that "all of the security staff carry identification, are equipped with body worn cameras, and have vehicles that are tracked, so that should anyone contact us with any concerns we can immediately investigate."

Speaking on the allegations passed onto them by local universities, the Council said "investigations have found that the evidence does not corroborate the claims being made."

The Council added that "the work of the police and our teams have been well received with positive feedback", but promised to "look into any issues highlighted to us".

Many of those who took part in the survey admitted that they had previously felt uncomfortable in the presence of the covid marshals. One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to The Courier separately, and stated that "two covid marshals started walking with us, made inappropriate comments about our outfits… then asked if we had spare seats for them at our table for them to join us."

The student stated "They were obviously trying to joke with us but their behaviour was out of order and extremely inappropriate as they are meant to be here for our safety." 

Noise level appears to be a common denominator which prompts engagement with covid marshals. Anna Brooks, a resident at a property on Sunbury Avenue, reported her recent incident with the authorities. The Newcastle University student had been socialising with housemates in the living room when enforcement officers knocked on the door. Whilst there had been no complaints from any neighbours, the covid marshals deemed the noise unacceptable. The authorities then demanded that Brooks show her ID and reassured her that no further action would be taken. 

However, the residents received an anti-social behaviour complaint letter from Newcastle City Council and met with an email from the property’s estate agent Walton Robinson, which had been informed of the incident. Brooks told The Courier "Our university reputation could be in jeopardy because of this, because of noise, it’s not right."

Whilst this incident occurred at a student house, several covid marshals have been known to challenge students on the street. One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, was stopped on the way to the Sainsbury’s by West Jesmond station whilst with her two flat mates. The student stated that after refusing to give her address, she was verbally abused by covid Marshalls, in which they asked the group of girls "what have you got mental issues, are you down syndrome, are you mentally ill? [sic]" 

Another survey participant commented that they "watched two covid marshals intimidate two young ladies in West Jesmond walking to Sainsbury's… because they were dressed too nicely to go to Sainsbury's apparently."

Concerns and complaints about Covid marshals can be emailed to psr@newcastle.gov.uk for investigation.

Joe Molander designed and analysed the results of this survey, and contributed reporting to this article.

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AUTHOR: Ruby Story Dartford
Journalist Student studying at Newcastle University.

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