[Update: 22nd January 2021] Latest updates on the movement away from Covid Marshals
For many students who returned to Newcastle at the beginning of the new academic year what once felt like a wonderful place to live had turned into something different. Not only were you all trying to navigate Covid restrictions, but tensions between long term residents and student residents were also fueled by a fear of the virus spreading. Although we know that not everyone has been sticking to the rules this doesn’t justify the hostile environment that many of you felt. With Operation Oak out every night and the introduction of the City Council Covid Marshals in Jesmond, it seemed that policing students was a priority and that welfare of students was less important. True or not the Officers were not going to accept this ‘new normal’ and have been lobbying on your behalf since finding out about inappropriate behaviour of the Covid marshals, lack of information on their remit and authority and the marginalisation of students that this was creating.
NUSU believes that whilst Operation Oak does have flaws, we support the idea that this initiative allows the University to manage issues in the community and keeps students clear of criminal charges if possible. Your Officers are pushing for a full review of Operation Oak in order to address some of the issues concerning you. Covid Marshals have never been part of the Operation Oak Initiative. You can read more here about the difference between the two.
Your NUSU President, Welfare and Equality Officer, and Athletic Union Officer have been particularly active in making things fairer for you whilst acknowledging the need for extra vigilance in controlling the spread of the virus. Since the start of term 1 and alongside the many meetings on community matters, the officers built their case in a number of ways. They organised and facilitated a Q&A with the City Council and Police, The Courier published articles and an open letter was sent to the Leader of the Council, Nick Forbes, clearly outlining the issues and the changes we wanted for you.
Following all of this, and with support from the University, a series of meetings with representatives from Newcastle and Northumbria Universities and SU’s, the City Council and Northumbria Police have resulted in these subsequent changes and improvements.
Public Protection and Neighbourhood Officers (PPNOs)
- The city council will not be contracting this out to a private security firm.
- The marshals will not be deployed again and instead PPNOs and will be handpicked and trained by a Senior Environmental Health Practitioner. This training will include acceptable behaviours, and role and scope.
- The PPNOs will be deployed if Covid breach complaints in any area of the city increase and therefore creating the need for additional patrols. If all residents remain within Covid restrictions, there would be no need for the deployment of PPNOs.
- PPNOs will investigate and escalate reports of noise, ASB and Covid breaches, in line with their refreshed role and training. They will not be permitted to enter houses.
- PPNOs will be easily identifiable, and will wear bespoke Council uniforms which cannot be confused with Northumbria Police. They will also be equipped with body cameras.
- The initiative remains separate to Operation Oak.
This will be subject to ongoing review. Although our hopes of any extra patrols in student areas coming to an end have not been fully met we are happy to see that this system is fairer and will only be launched if there is a need, we will, of course, be monitoring student feedback going forward to continue to hear your views.
We are all trying to manage this difficult time and hope that you feel enough has been done to balance the need for controlling the spread against enforcement in the community.
Keep up to date with current government Covid regulations here.
If you need extra support on any of the issues in this article or have an unrelated query or problem, you can book an appointment with the Student Advice Centre here.
If you have been subject to a Fixed Penalty Notice read an update from the Student Advice Centre here.
[Original Post: 6th January 2021] Our concerns raised to City Council in Open Letter
Your sabbatical Officer team have put together this open letter to Nick Forbes (Nick Forbes CBE is a British Labour politician who has served as the leader of Newcastle City Council since 2011) in regards to the current concerns around covid marshalls in Newcastle & their deployment in student areas.
Dear Nick Forbes,
We are writing this letter to raise awareness about our concerns surrounding the covid marshals in Newcastle and their deployment to student areas. We have, for months, been raising our concerns about them in several meetings such as Students in Newcastle Forum, and although a meeting was called at the end of Term to address these issues we remain concerned that this matter has not been adequately addressed
We first became aware of the Covid marshals in September through reports from students and not through the Council making us aware. We feel that this has set precedence on the conduct of the Council and the covid marshals since then. Instead of letting us know through our various committees and meetings that promote community cohesion, the City Council opted to deploy them into majoritively student areas, without proper identification, without warning the community partners and thus increasing tensions between students and the Council. We hope that by raising our concerns here, we will be able to find a productive way to move forward.
Our first major concern with the covid marshals is the lack of clarity about what their job roles are and the lack of accountability when they go beyond these job roles. The covid marshals which are funded by the government should, according to gov.uk, be used to “promote social distancing and encourage public compliance with COVID-19 public health measures, educate and explain COVID-19 Secure guidelines in the public realm and for business premises, identify and support businesses and premises not following guidelines and escalating as appropriate”. The Newcastle marshals have, however, been used in a targeted way whereby they are being deployed in student dense areas and creating a hostile environment. For us the concern is that students are being unfairly targeted when places like Walker North and Byker have consistently had high numbers of cases but are yet to have private security patrolling the streets. Prompting the question, why do these areas not deserve the same level of compliance monitoring?
The University together with the Students’ Union work hard with the City Council and Northumbria Police to try and foster a working relationship that benefits all residents of Newcastle. For years both Northumbia and Newcastle Universities have been helping address concerns of ASB with Operation Oak which has proved a useful tool for residents and students alike. With awareness of the pandemic, both universities paid more for trained and uniformed police, and so it is with this in mind that we have to query why the council has put in private security firms who have no community relation training and deployed them to places in which Operation Oak already runs?
Furthermore, we are deeply concerned by the students reporting that they have had encounters with covid marshals in which marshals have behaved in an inappropriate manner, including sexual advances. These reports are a cause of particular concern to us due to the power imbalance that exists in these scenarios. In addition to these, particularly, we are further concerned about reports of general increased anxiety amongst students in what they call a ‘hostile environment’. The presence of the Covid marshals have increased student anxiety as many of them now feel unsafe in the community. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis and we more than ever need to have compassion for all members of our community and understand that the constant patrols have a negative impact on student mental health. We believe that students who offer a vibrancy, as well as cultural and economic contribution to the city, should also be able to feel safe and welcomed in the community. As a Students’ Union who want all students to feel at home within the city we find the reports from students that they feel unsafe in the city very concerning and hope that these concerns will be addressed in a productive way.
We recognise that the pandemic has brought numerous challenges and unforeseen circumstances. It is because of this that the university worked with the police and added additional funding for Operation Oak. We understood this rationale as Operation Oak had been tested across many years and is a tool that both permanent residents and student residents utilise for community cohesion. However, covid marshals who don't have proper training as community liaison officers do more harm than good. Using security guards to police students is intimidating and perpetuates the stereotype of ‘town versus gown’. What we ask for is that the Council recognises that Operation Oak is currently running every night to provide support in the student dense areas of Newcastle and that those areas don’t need a heightened security presence in addition. We also ask that if the covid marshals have to be used that they are deployed fairly across the city as a tool for the public good rather than a targeted tool that intimidates students and worsens community relations. We finally ask that issues directly affecting students be brought to SINF in future prior to their commencement. SINF was created as a place where we could all come and work together as partners across the city and the covert way in which the covid marshals were deployed goes against the purpose for which the group was created. If we are to be partners, we must all be willing to communicate in a transparent manner and work together.
I hope this letter can be the start of the action needed to protect all residents living in Newcastle.
Dorothy Chirwa, President (Newcastle University Students’ Union
Sian Dickie, Education Officer (Newcastle University Students’ Union)
Charlotte Boulton, Postgraduate Officer (Newcastle University Students’ Union)
Benthe Tanghe, Athletic Union Officer (Newcastle University Students’ Union)
Hannah Finney, Activities Officer (Newcastle University Students’ Union)
Nadia Ahmed, Welfare & Equality Officer (Newcastle University Students’ Union)
Ella Williams, Editor of the Courier (Newcastle University Students’ Union)