By Frank Molloy
If you have ever been on a walking tour of London, or any other city, then there’s a chance that you may have found yourself escorted by a guide who is not all they seem.
The fact is that there may be up to 500 unregulated walking guides operating across the UK after lockdown restrictions were lifted in July.
While it may not seem like such a big deal on the surface, these bogus escorts – unlike accredited guides – have undergone no Covid-19 training and are leading groups of British and foreign holidaymakers without appropriate safety measures in place.
Social distancing is 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 the £100billion tour guide industry, which has been crippled by lockdowns and the stem of international visitors.
But I have deep and grave concerns that the bogus guides’ 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.
As a fully-qualified London tour guide who has been operating for the last three decades, I know just how badly the industry has been hit by the pandemic. It is no exaggeration to say that it will be a struggle for official tour guides such as myself to stay afloat until tourism returns to pre-virus levels.
Every customer counts and, simply put, bogus guide are taking them away.
Worse, though, 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.
It is the fear of all professional tour guides that these 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, of which I am a member, there are around 2,500official 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.
The problem is that there is currently no law preventing anyone from operating as a tour guide.
The explosion in these unregulated ‘Misguides’, as I call them on account of their lack of local knowledge and liability insurance, is already damaging the sector financially.
But the current pandemic has made the problem far worse, potentially affecting every one of us by helping to spread coronavirus through failing to implement the latest government and public health guidance on Covid-19.
To return to work, legitimate guides such as myself 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.
Tour guides 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.
This could mean that hundreds of unofficial guides are now escorting packed walking tours in major towns and cities across Britain without any training or appropriate safety measures —leading to transmission between participants who, in turn, may spread the virus domestically and internationally.
Partly as a response to the threat posed by misguides, I recently published my new book, 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, can be seen as a gentle introduction to ‘psychogeography’ or, in other words, the act of experiencing your surroundings on a sensory level and discovering the ‘soul’ of a city. Though my book focuses on London, the concept can apply to any city or town.
My hope with the book is that it will help people rediscover and reclaim their urban surroundings, especially following the recent coronavirus lockdown. With many people once again working from home, now is the perfect time to explore the streets and buildings where you live.
Should you be planning a guided tour, 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, offers the following helpful advice:
“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.”
As Covid-19 cases continue to increase, we must all play our part in fighting transmission, and this includes steering well clear of misguides.
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
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FRANK MOLLOY
We speak to tour guide Frank Molloy about his new book, Soul City Wandering, the concept of psychogeography and his favourite UK locations, among other things…
Q. What first prompted you to become a tour guide?
A. It was a lucky accident. On my journalism college course was a student who was studying to be a tour guide. Many years later, I bumped into her while on holiday in Croatia, of all places! She told me all about her career as a tour guide and I thought, that’s the job for me!
Q. How much work and training does it take to become a tour guide?
A. Initially, about two years for the practical stuff. Two evenings a week in the classroom and all-day Saturday for field work. Tons and tons of reading. After that you never stop learning.
Q. Your new book, Soul City Wandering, introduces the concept of ‘psychogeography’. Can you explain what this means by providing an example?
A. Ah! That’s one of my main conjectures. By its very nature, psychogeography should defy definition as it’s such a personal thing. But as an example, and using London as a model, there are certain doorways where you might stand and experience a negative emotional assault on your senses: the sight of someone homeless; the smell of diesel; the taste of fast-food; the noise of a siren; the vibration of a tube rumbling beneath your feet. Then move to the very next doorway and the effect on those senses might be altogether pleasing. Encountering that juxtaposition is an example of psychogeography.
Q. What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
A. The aim is to inspire travellers to engage with their journeys, advocating personal interaction with time, place, motion and emotion —thus helping to take back control of one’s environment. It is also gauged to capture the public post-lockdown appetite for walking for pleasure.
Q. What makes London such a special place to be a tour guide?
A. London is almost impossible to beat when compared to other cities. Where else has two millennia worth of history, is still at the cutting edge of the modern business world, and is still considered hip and vibrant in terms of culture? It’s just got it all.
Q. Bogus tour guides are an increasing problem. What do you think should be done to tackle this issue?
A. It would help if authorities recognised the problem. At the moment, there is no law against anyone guiding, but the current situation just shows how much faith the public put into other people’s expertise.
Q. You provide a variety of walking tours around London. Do you have a personal favourite location on these tours, and why?
A. Southwark, I guess, is my favourite area. I know it well because I started working there as a young man. I’ve seen it change from an industrial to a cultural landscape, and I feel part of that change.
Q. Your book includes two ‘mini’ tours – ‘Romancing the British Museum’ and ‘Ghosts of Swinging London’. Can you explain what these cover, and why you selected them?
A. The idea of ‘psychogeography’ may seem a little daunting for some. I wanted some lighter examples of as an introduction to those coming to the subject from a standing start. Romancing the British Museum is, of course, an inside walk (and handy if it’s raining!), and for Ghosts of Swinging London, what could be more popular as a subject for a walk than pubs and rock ‘n’ roll?
Q. You are qualified to conduct walking tours across the UK. Outside of London, where is your favourite location for a walking tour, and why?
A. Stonehenge. It may seem too obvious for some, but I have walked around there literally hundreds of times, and I never get bored. It simply fascinates me. It may be because it has a strong psychogeographic vibe.
Q. Your book contains a selection of your own poetry. Tell us more about this.
A. There are plenty of books on the subject of psychogeography. I wanted another dimension. I have been writing poems on people and places that move me for years. What I have done is combined it with my guiding knowledge. Hopefully the unique fusion will appeal to readers.