COVID-19 : Private Security between public recognition and neglection

Crises have a way of reminding us of the essential nature of some of the services in society – such as private security. Many European governments have publicly recognised private security as essential services. But the COVID-19 situation also exacerbated the challenges that the private security industry faces since many years. Now is the time for urgent relief to struggling businesses, as a new statement of CoESS to competent authorities in Europe stresses. But one can also draw the first lessons learned: beyond COVID-19, the essential character of private security must be recognised in public procurement practices and the “security continuum”. Member States must act!

While one country after another went into lockdown and brought public and economic life to a standstill, private security associations across Europe were calling for their sector to be recognised as essential services. In many countries, this gives access to special “rights”, such as free movement of workers or access to childcare services, to name a few. Failing such recognition, many warned, would mean that the growing demand for private security services to ensure the protection of critical infrastructures, warehouses and supply chains, supermarkets and hospitals could not be dealt with.

Well-deserved recognition of the security sector

Also thanks to the excellent work of CoESS’ national member associations, many governments followed that pledge quickly: among them Spain, Belgium, and the UK. Also the European Commission lists private security guards as “workers exercising critical occupations” in a Guidance document.

Private security companies and workers also received the recognition they deserved for joining the frontline in the fight against the coronavirus:

  • Belgium’s Prime Minister thanked all those who “continue to contribute to the functioning of the country: bus drivers, police officers, food retail staff, private security staff”.
  • The Spanish National Police specifically praised the work being carried out by the Spanish private security sector and the more than 100,000 guards in managing the  COVID-19 crisis. Their performance would not only help the Security Forces in the day-to-day protection of people and property, in supermarkets, hospitals, health centres, and other services. With their support, they would also help to stop the spread of the virus.
  • The National Director of the Portuguese Public Security Police, Magina da Silva, demonstrated the solidarity of the police with the private security sector, “which is present in this hour of need”, and “who are at the forefront of interacting daily with the public in these particularly difficult circumstances in complementarity with public security forces”, with a dedicated note.

Blow to the security continuum in other countries

Part of the reality is, though, that the recognition of our sector is not the same in all European countries - and CoESS urges in a new statement competent authorities in Europe for action.

Frédéric Gauthey, President of our French member GES, reports on the situation of private security in the country in a security magazine at the beginning of April: "We finally moved forward with the government on certain files, but the private security sector is still awaiting the decree specifying the list of essential services. […] GES regrets that, unlike other European countries which have stressed the necessary and useful participation of private security in the continuity of economic activity, this is still not the case in France. We already see a multiplication of security incidents at the logistics warehouses of our customers who call us for help in order to protect their premises. It is obvious that the security continuum is a "victim" of the crisis that our country is going through. When the time comes, we will have to discuss certain questions, in particular, whether the public authorities have the real intention to implement the security continuum."

This situation isn’t anything new to CoESS: there cannot be a security continuum without pro-active engagement of public authorities, public-private partnerships in joint matters of interest, and public procurement of security services that is based on value and not low costs only. This has been a problem since the past decade, when new threats posed challenges to public security. And it is a problem that weighs even heavier in times of crisis: in some European countries, private security companies are not provided with the financial, human, and administrative tools to properly respond to the exceptional demand for the protection of critical assets at a time when security is key.

Private security and public perception

Also in Italy, one of the countries that was hit hardest by the pandemic, CoESS’ Italian member Federsicurezza published a statement on the lack of recognition of the sector both by public authorities and the media – in spite of the essential missions carried out 24/7 by private security services in support of a whole nation’s fight against COVID-19.

On the bright side, the outstanding engagement of the sector, including its businesses and workers, is still reported on by many media. Private security guards working under tough circumstances in hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets, and supply chains are recognised as everyday heroes, as the many articles in popular newspapers show (Der Spiegel in Germany, Marianne in France, and La Libre in Belgium – to name only few).

And private security continues to stay side-by-side to those who save lives in the healthcare sector and in hospitals all over the continent. Most are unseen, a few receive specific attention: In the UK, companies also assisted the National Health Services NHS in transforming the Exhibition Centre London into the Nightingale Hospital. CoESS’ Spanish member APROSER, organised a tribute event of private security for health workers at the Ifema Emergency Hospital. Our Croatian member just published recommendations for the protection of businesses and citizens amidst rising crime levels in a country hit by an earthquake and the COVID-19 crisis.

Economic consequences

Still, many challenges remain: the most urgent one being for many companies to pay their workers and guarantee sufficient cash flow. Business activities in many service segments have come to a complete standstill, such as airport and event security.

While the EU and Member States have vamped up massively their financial support structures to companies, many still fear the economic consequences of this crisis – which are diverse. CoESS’ Dutch Member NV is asking the Dutch government to adjust the emergency employment aid scheme in such a way that the seasonal character of event security is taken into account and calls on banks for more cooperation in solving acute liquidity problems. CoESS’ German member BDSW warned in a letter to the Federal Minister of Economic Affairs about the lack of private security workers due to the amount of sick leaves and the complete halt of training for guards. APROSER has also concerns about the functioning of financial support measures in Spain.

Given the broad suspension of cash payments across Europe, ESTA, the European Security Transport Association and Corresponding Member of CoESS, stressed already in March that there is no evidence that cash helps the spread of coronavirus.

The Way Forward

So, while private security continues to protect the functioning of hospitals, supply chains, and transport across the continent, our sector and many companies will be hit hard by the crisis. It is important that these companies now receive the financial and social support they require. Their services will be needed again once this crisis is over.

It is therefore equally important that the European economy succeeds in restarting quickly once the health crisis is under control. Lessons must be learned, and consequences faced.

CoESS and its members will monitor with outmost attention that companies and workers receive financial and social aid, and that the economic crisis does not exacerbate the existing problem of low-cost focused procurement of private security services. In the Netherlands, NV just sent last week a letter to the Dutch government reporting practices of public and private buyers that unilaterally and immediately scaled-down services to zero without bridging agreements. Mostly commercial buyers unilaterally suspended the payment of invoices, extended payment terms, and forced service providers to lower rates in order to find solutions for their own decline in turnover – a very bad omen for what’s to come.

Such practices damage the sustainable functioning of our essential services tremendously and stand in contrast to the role private security plays in managing the COVID-19 situation. Best value procurement is key for the sector to ensure economic growth and fair wages, and to overcome challenges in finding urgently required, skilled, labour to provide quality services.

The recognition of private security as essential services cannot be switched on or off according to the situation. It is time for Member States to finally see the sector for what it is – an important source of high-quality security services, which is always there to protect businesses, supply chains, and citizens, and which must, therefore, be supported by public authorities through public-private cooperation and best value procurement that respects important quality criteria.

Security is a basic human need and right. Private security is not a service like the others. The industry has shown that it was always there to protect people, assets, and infrastructure. CoESS thinks it is time that European Member States give the private security sector the statute, recognition and support it deserves.