CORONAVIRUS: Bristol Covid marshals extension may be illegal
Image: Bristol City Council
Covid marshals in Bristol are being extended until March – but the decision might have broken the law on how the city council buys goods and services, a report warned.
The local authority’s cabinet agreed to spend an extra £304,000, from a government pot of money to tackle the pandemic, to keep the team of 16 in place for another five months.
It takes the total cost to £803,000 since the marshals began patrolling the city in November 2020, offering advice and guidance to residents and businesses to comply with coronavirus restrictions, rather than enforcement.
But a report to the Bristol City Council meeting on Tuesday, October 5, said simply extending the deal with the existing provider may be against procurement rules as the contract is not going out to re-tender to other potential bidders, so could be open to challenge.
It said: “It is the view of procurement colleagues that the proposed extension is too short to complete a tender process without causing significant service disruption and that cabinet approval be sought to agree funding to be approved and the direct award.
“This agreement would be on the proviso that any further extension of the marshal service should be compliantly tendered via a full tender process in a timely manner.”
The report’s legal advice said: “It is recognised that the further extension of the contract for five months places the council in a situation where it may breach the procurement regulations.
“The fact that the extension is limited and required to avoid significant service disruption will help mitigate the risk of challenge.”
Members agreed to make the direct award to existing contractor the Red Snapper Group, an agency that provides staff to law enforcement, cyber security, offender supervision and regulatory services bodies, according to its website.
The cabinet report said Bristol’s Outbreak Management Group recommended back on July 12 that the marshals should be kept until March 31, 2022.
But it said: “To date a competitive tender process has not been conducted due to the urgency of the requirement.
“An existing contract was varied to include the Covid marshal requirement until October 31, 2021.
“As the requirement now needs to be continued beyond this expiry date to March 31,
2022, and requires an additional spend of £304,000, cabinet approval is needed as the total spend on this requirement would be £803,000 and would entail a further direct award to the Red Snapper Group.”
No mention was made at the City Hall meeting of the potential breach of procurement regulations as councillors approved the extension.
New cabinet member Cllr Ellie King, who has responsibility for public health, communities and Bristol One City, said: “Our Covid marshals have worked tirelessly to advise and engage with residents and businesses to keep people safe from the virus over the past year.
“Since the programme started our marshals have distributed over 86,000 face masks to members of the public and businesses, along with thousands of lateral flow tests.
“They have completed over 17,000 inspections across the city helping to rectify over 2,800 individual problems.
“They have walked up to 17 miles a day on their patrols, they’ve supported over 100 vaccination clinics at GP vaccination centres and they’ve supported 53 days of action delivered with city partners.”
She said they had been instrumental in helping Bristol to prepare and remain safe as it reopened.
“Covid-19 still poses an ongoing risk to this city and there is still work to be done to support individuals and businesses to comply with guidance and keep infection rates down,” Cllr King said.
As of Thursday, October 7, Bristol’s infection rate was 187 cases per 100,000 population, lower than the England average of 335.
There were 869 new cases in the city over the last seven days, while about 70 people are in hospital in Bristol with coronavirus.
Words: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter
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