Unregulated tour guides are putting tourists’ lives in danger and increasing the likelihood of a second nationwide lockdown by openly flouting Covid-19 rules in London and other British cities, experts warned yesterday.
It is feared that up to 500 unregulated walking guides are now thought to be operating across the UK after restrictions were lifted in July.
Unlike accredited guides, the bogus escorts have undergone no Covid-19 training and are leading groups of British and foreign holidaymakers without appropriate safety measures in place.
Social distancing is said to be “non-existent”, group sizes frequently exceed the maximum 30 limit, and facemasks are not compulsory.
Participants’ contact details for the NHS’ Test and Trace system, meanwhile, are rarely requested or recorded.
The growing number of illegitimate guides – which could have increased by up to 20 per cent since 2019 – already present a major threat to an £100billion industry crippled by lockdowns and the stem of international visitors.
But there are now “deep and grave concerns” that a failure to adhere to the latest safety measures could lead to a surge in further cases of domestic transmission and contribute to a feared second national lockdown.
Frank Molloy, one of London’s leading official tour guides for over three decades, said: “The industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and it will be a struggle for official tour guides to stay afloat until tourism returns to pre-virus levels. Every customer counts and bogus guide are taking them away.
“Worse, they are operating in scant regard for people’s safety and without the slightest care about the nation’s fight against coronavirus.
“Without training and regulation, they are not acting in compliance with the latest nationwide guidance and protocols designed to minimise the risk of infection among tourists when out on a guided walking tour. Neither will they be taking tourists’ contact details, as per the new regulations.”
Molloy, 53, added: “Official tour guides across the country now share deep and grave concerns that unregulated guides’ behaviour will lead to a spike in infections, potentially leading to additional and avoidable deaths and, ultimately, a second national lockdown.”
According to the Institute of Tourist Guiding (ITG), the government-approved registration and standard-setting body for the guiding sector, there are around 2,500 official tour guides in Britain.
Most are registered with federations such as the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides or the Association of Professional Tourist Guides and undergo a minimum of 12 months’ training before earning a ‘Green’ or ‘White’ badge of certification.
Gaining a coveted Blue Badge, the UK’s highest guiding qualification, can take up to two years and cost a minimum of £5,000.
There is currently no law preventing anyone from operating as a tour guide.
But the explosion in unregulated ‘Misguides’, as Molloy calls them – a derogatory term on account of their lack of local knowledge and liability insurance – is already said to be damaging the sector financially.
There are now fears that they could be helping to spread coronavirus by failing to implement the latest government and public health guidance on Covid-19.
To return to work, legitimate guides have had to undergo coronavirus safety certification from VisitBritain, the UK’s national tourism agency, as part of its ‘We’re Good to Go’ scheme.
The scheme, which is open to all tourism and hospitality businesses across the UK including tour guides, is conducted through an online self-assessment form and leads to certification demonstrating that applicants are adhering to the latest Government and public health guidance on Covid-19.
To achieve this benchmark, tour guides are required to carry out a coronavirus risk assessment and to put in place measures to minimise the potential for the infection to spread.
These include limiting group sizes to a maximum of 30, split into socially-distanced groupings of six; providing hand gel; and ensuring all members of the group are wearing facemasks.
They must also have an awareness of the safest routes to lead parties within venues while avoiding crowded areas as well as recording all customers’ contact details in compliance with the NHS’s Test and Trace system.
Crucially, only guides who are members of an official guiding organisation can apply for the new standard.
It could mean that hundreds of unofficial guides are now leading packed walking tours in major towns and cities across Britain without any training or appropriate safety measures.
This could lead to transmission between participants who, in turn, may spread the virus domestically and internationally.
Molloy, who has led more than 20,000 people on guided walking tours across London, said: “Prior to the virus, these bogus guides were regularly flouting industry standards on safe group sizes, traffic awareness and basic health and safety training.
“This hasn’t changed post-pandemic. It has just become even more serious as there is now the added threat of coronavirus.”
As a response to the threat posed by misguides, Molloy has penned Soul City Wandering, a guide to London that combines history, music and poetry to help visitors better experience their surroundings.
The book, published by Choir Press, hits the shelves this week.
Molloy added that the only reliable way to avoid a bogus guide is to ask for ID.
The ITG, which continues to issue Covid-19 guidance for its members, said: “In these uncertain times, people considering taking a guided tour may understandably have concerns about their health and safety.
“But with the UK’s professionally qualified and highly trained Blue Badge, Green Badge and White Badge Tourist Guides, you will be in extremely capable hands.
“ITG recommends that visitors check that their guide has a visible ID and public liability insurance at the very minimum.
“They should also ask whether the guide adheres to a professional code of conduct, and has training in knowledge, crowd management, Covid-19 training and site liaison.”
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FRANK MOLLOY
Tour guide and author Frank Molloy chats about his new book, Soul City Wandering, and explains how we can all get more out of our visits to other cities, as well as our own urban environments, by learning to “walk with purpose”.
Q. You have been a tour guide over three decades. What parts of the job give you the most satisfaction?
A. When I take families out, the kids are always naturally shy to begin with. If by the end of the day I can get them asking me all kinds of questions, I know I have stimulated their imagination, and that makes me feel I’ve done a good job. Also, people pay their hard-earned money to go on a tour, and want to have a good time. For someone to say how much they’re enjoyed themselves is like music to my ears!
Q. You have just released your new book, Soul City Wandering. What was your inspiration for putting pen to paper?
A. People generally ‘walk’ for three reasons: to get from A to B, for exercise, or for pleasure. As soon as the forced lockdown began, I realised that another reason had come to the fore: to stop boredom! So, I wanted to create a guide to show how you can make walking more of a physical brain activity. It’s like an outdoor alternative to a crossword puzzle or word search.
Q. The book provides a gentle introduction to the concept of psychogeography. How would you explain this concept to someone who has never previously heard of the term?
A. First of all, I try to avoid using the word ‘psychogeography’! It’s a somewhat heavy term that tends that puts people off. I find the easiest way to introduce the concept it is to use the phrase ‘walking with meaning’, as most people can get that. Then go from there.
Q. What is the benefit to a tourist of trying to add a psychogeographical dimension to their visit?
A. Well, the word ‘dimension’ is key. A visitor tour can be quite a manipulative thing. For example, some attractions will provide audio-guides that will give you only the information they want you to have. They are also designed to keep you moving. There is something slightly subversive in adopting psychogeographical principles, like senses and emotions, to break free from the given dimensions of a tour.
Q. How do you incorporate the principles of psychogeography into your guided tours around London?
A. For a guided tour, time and distance are overriding factors and usually form the physical boundaries of what can be achieved. Then it’s about what goes in between. The very nature of ‘sightseeing’ means we primarily rely on the sense of sight. What I try to do, however, is to get people to also use sounds, touch, smell and taste. Next, I might add a touch of history or legend. Then maybe include an activity. It’s all about layers. In a way, it’s like putting together the ultimate club sandwich!
Q. Your book focuses on London but, presumably, the psychogeographical principles it covers could be applied in any urban environment?
A. Yes, London is just the model I use because it’s on my doorstep, and I’m lucky in that respect. But Aberdeen, Aberystwyth or Abingdon will carry just as much psychogeographical weight relative to their size. It’s just a question of exploring the local landscape to make the connections.
Q. Outside of London, where else have you provided guided tours, or have been active in the promotion of a location’s tourist attractions?
A. I have been fortunate enough to tour all over Britain and Ireland in recent years, but of course, the current situation means sightseeing has pretty much ground to a halt. I’m currently writing a daily blog to independently mirror Visit Britain’s Staycation campaign. Essentially, I’m using my experience to do features on my favourite tourist attractions. It’s my little bit to help the industry, even though I’m not physically ‘out there’.
Q. What key things should a tourist do prior to going on a psychogeographical trip to get the most out of it?
A. First, wear comfortable shoes! But overall, the main thing I would suggest is to learn to relax. We all have stresses and strains in our day-to-day lives. Remember this is your time. Relaxing will help you begin to enjoy yourself, and that is the absolute key to the concept. It should an enjoyable hobby, not a ‘choreful’ study.
Q. If you could travel to any era to give a guided tour, what period would that be, and why?
A. What a great question! I think I would set my time machine clock to around 5,000 years ago and take some ancient British tourists to Stonehenge. I would hope those visitors could tell me something about the real meaning of the place. Then I could jaunt back to the present day as a top expert!
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. The previous question may have just answered that for me: a book about a time-travelling tour guide!
Soul City Wandering: A London Pilgrimage by Frank Molloy is published by The Choir Press and is out now on Amazon priced £9.99 in paperback