Norfolk's Covid marshalls: 'We all want to get back to some kind of normal'
- Credit: Danielle Booden
It’s a job which did not exist a year ago and could be gone within months – so what is it like being a coronavirus support officer?
Pre-pandemic Daniella Beck travelled the world as a cruise ship opera singer. “Last February I had just flown home from Antarctica and then my whole career came to a stand-still,” she said.
Daniella was the cruise director and entertainer, and had been head chorister at Norwich Cathedral girls' choir before training at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. As cruises were cut short and abandoned she returned to Norfolk - and work in her dad’s fish and chip shop in Hemsby - before applying to become a coronavirus marshal in Yarmouth.
“I just wanted to do something to help the community and public,” said the 31-year-old. “It is really rewarding when you are able to give that support to anyone in need.
“I also really enjoy the different roles that I have been able to take part with in this job. In October I was marshalling within the borough helping businesses and now I am part of the contact tracing team supporting those who are isolating. This could be anything from picking up a click-and-collect to collecting medicine. Most recently we have also been ringing on behalf of the James Paget to book vaccines, which I find very gratifying, being able to make someone’s day!”
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She said the most challenging part of the job has been making sure the public know they are there to keep people safe, although most people have been grateful and supportive. “We all want to get back to some kind of normal,” she said.
She is hoping to continue her singing career – but back in Norfolk. “Because of Covid I have realised that I now want to stay home. I still want to sing as it is my passion.”
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Norwich covid support officer Sandra enjoys a lot about her shifts but is looking forward to a time when the pandemic is confined to the history books – perhaps on the shelves of Norwich’s Millennium Library where she is a manager.
At the start of the pandemic she was redeployed. “I went to support a team of volunteers who were befriending, picking up medicines, doing essential shopping,” she said.
When she returned to her library work part-time she wanted to continue to help people through the pandemic and signed up as a support officer.
“I enjoy quite a lot about it,” she said. “I think the most useful part of the job is when we go and talk to businesses and make sure they have all the information and have the everything in place that they need. We speak with every business in the city.”
She said just being visible around the city encouraged people to comply with the law.
“No-one likes to be told off. We want people to feel that we are all in it together.
“We get people who don’t agree with what we are doing but we get an overwhelming amount of people who are pleased that local government is doing something to help. And people really appreciate the free masks and sanitiser!
“Sometimes we do ask people to move along around the market.
“People can be quite rude and aggressive. They don’t believe there is a pandemic. We have had people shouting abuse, which is not fun, but I can deal with that fine.”
Sandra, who is 31, caught coronavirus in December and said she was quite ill for a couple of days although she did not need hospital treatment. And she said the role as a coronavirus support officer has helped keep her healthy. “It is great in terms of being able to walk and keep active but I can’t wait until we are not needed.”
“It can be challenging when people are abusive or obstructive, or you talk to people who are struggling, homeless, not coping. We also perform a sort of mental health role. We see people who say they haven’t talked to anyone for a week,” said 61-year-old former teacher Alison Darling, who applied to become a covid support officer with Norwich City Council after losing her temporary admin job during the pandemic. She has been patrolling the streets of Norwich since November and sees it as a way to help out, as well as earn a wage. “We have got masks we can give to people who need them, people ask advice about the current restrictions, and for directions too,” said Alison.
Another important part of the role is liaising with people running businesses to check they have all the information they need, and systems in place, in order to operate safely and within the law.
“It’s about being available and being visible,” said Alison. “Reminding people that the recommendations and guidelines are in place to try and protect people.
“And choosing your battles.”
She said most of her interactions with people are positive, and she loves a role which involves being outside and active, adding: “And at the end of the day it’s finished. You don’t have to take anything home with you.”
However she said: “There are a lot of deniers out there. There is a lot of bad and weird information out there.
“Where I can I try and put people right – no, you are not going to get cancer from wearing masks - but you have to learn to be non-judgemental and let things go and think people don’t understand, it’s lack of understanding.”
Her grown up son contracted coronavirus and is now suffering from long covid. Someone else she knew, who was 64 and with no underlying health conditions, died. “That’s the risk. You can be fit and it gets you,” she said.
And if people get aggressive her strategy is to take off the high vis vest and walk away – as they are often attacking the role, and stop when the jacket is removed.
Covid marshal team leader JJ Potter was an officer in the British Army before joining the Yarmouth team. He said he enjoyed interacting with people and thought he could encourage them ‘to do the right thing during the restrictions.’
“Generally the public have received us well, this has been most apparent at the vaccine sites, where the public have thanked the marshals personally,” said 55-year-old JJ.
He said he has enjoyed having a positive impact on the local community and would like to continue as part of the Great Yarmouth Borough Council team after the pandemic.
Coronavirus support officers, marshals or stewards are working across the country to help people comply with the law. Employed by district councils with government funding they have no enforcement powers but give advice and information and can report breaches of regulations.
Norwich has a team of 32 support officers covering daytime shifts and 10 covering night shifts, seven days a week. Their main duties are to support Norwich businesses by ensuring the ‘high street’ area is safe for customers, visitors and staff. The need for the roles is being reassessed on a monthly basis. They also engage with the public, answering questions and offering advice. Free masks and hand sanitiser are available from the Covid-19 support stall on Norwich Market.
In Yarmouth coronavirus marshals patrol busy areas in Gorleston and Yarmouth, including shopping streets and the seafronts, seven days a week. Marshals have also helped direct queues at vaccination centres, picked up medicines from pharmacies and helped with symptom-free testing and contact tracing, as well as providing high-visibility advice and reassurance. The role will continue at least until the end of the summer.
North Norfolk has eight support officers plus a coordinator. A council spokesman said their responsibilities have included enhanced contact tracing and advising businesses, adding: “They will be a visible presence in our seaside resorts and market towns throughout the summer months offering advice, guidance and reassurance for businesses, residents and visitors.”
Breckland is expanding its team of covid officers to 17 people who will continue to work with residents and visitors at least until the end of 2021. A council spokesperson said: “Our officers are working closely with businesses in each of our five market towns to provide advice on how they can make changes to keep their staff and customers safe and comply with national covid guidance. The team is also on hand to provide a reassuring presence to shoppers and, with the expected reopening of our high streets in the coming weeks, will play a key role in supporting our ‘Spring Back’ campaign. This is to support local businesses to reopen and thrive, while encouraging people to shop local and shop safely.”
The team is also supporting the track and trace scheme and symptom-free testing programme, working with businesses to check they meet covid safety regulations, and continuing to deliver food parcels and collect prescriptions for people most in need.
The 22 covid support advisors working for Broadland and South Norfolk district councils since December have focused on helping residents and businesses comply with the law. Some have also helped with contact tracing, informing people who need to isolate. The team was also heavily involved with the surge testing in Diss and Roydon.
A council spokesperson said: “In terms of the future, the CSA role is likely to evolve as the lockdown eases, with non-essential businesses being the next focus, helping them to get ready to reopen on the 12th April, giving advice and guidance on how to be covid-secure and reassure customers that their premises is safe to visit. It is expected that CSAs will be redeployed to other services within the council by the end of June, as the covid regulations are fully repealed.”