COVID-19: Is private security an essential service?

New Zealand Security Magazine - 24 March 2020 Update

Private security services
Private security services - an essential service.

As New Zealand goes into COVID-19 lockdown, there remains ambiguity over whether or not licensed private security providers are included within the government list of ‘essential services’, writes Nicholas Dynon.

[Please note that since this article was published, the New Zealand government has deemed security an essential service. Please refer to the subsequently published article Security deemed essential for updated information].

“Whilst the guidelines are rather vague, our interpretation is that all workers who hold a current security licence (Certificate of Approval) will be covered under the essential service designation. This will therefore cover security guards, security technicians, security consultants, PI’s and monitoring operators.”

Gary Morrison, NZSA CEO

As New Zealand escalates its response to stop COVID-19, the country now sits at Alert Level 3, and will move to Alert Level 4 at 11.59 pm on Wednesday 25 March.

“At Level 3, we are asking non-essential businesses to close,” stated Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “This includes bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, cinemas, pools, museums, libraries and other places where people gather together.”

“Essential services will remain open, such as supermarkets, banks, GPs, pharmacies, service stations, couriers and other important frontline service providers… Essential services will stay open at every level, but must put in place alternative ways of working including physical distancing of staff of two metres.”

The question for the security industry is whether or not the provision of private security services falls within the definition of an ‘essential service’.

According to a New Zealand Security Association (NZSA) update, as of Monday 23 March the NZSA had yet to receive confirmation of the industry’s essential service status, “however we are aware that other countries have designated security services under the essential service category and we expect New Zealand will follow this protocol.”

According to a Monday afternoon update to the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 website (, essential businesses – and those that support them – include businesses that “provide the necessities of life for everyone in New Zealand,” such as  food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet and financial support services.

The update listed the types of entities deemed to be providing essential services, yet despite listing various ‘public safety and national security’ entities, including “any person employed or contracted in a public safety or national security role”, the list did not make mention of specific licensed private security roles.

As of just after 9:00am this morning (Tuesday 24 March), the NZSA had firmed its position:

“Whilst the guidelines are rather vague, our interpretation is that all workers who hold a current security licence (Certificate of Approval) will be covered under the essential service designation. This will therefore cover security guards, security technicians, security consultants, PI’s and monitoring operators. We do not believe there will be any restrictions to the services being provided by those staff (for example technicians can still perform installs as well as servicing).

“It should be current practice however we recommend that all staff carry/display their CoA’s whilst on duty as evidence of their status as a licensed security employee should they be challenged by the public or authorities.”

Along with this information, the NZSA has provided its members with a template letter that can be forwarded to customers confirming essential service status.

Impact of shutdown

“With the rapidly changing social and economic environment, we are seeing wildly varying impacts on providers within the security industry,” stated Gary Mosrrison, NZSA CEO. “Whilst many providers, particularly those in the guarding sector, are seeing an unprecedented increase in demand and are urgently seeking additional staff, there are others who have lost significant contracts and even with the Government support package are facing staff lay-offs.”

To meet demand, the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority (PSPLA) has confirmed that procedures are being implemented to ensure the fast tracking of security licence applications.

“Temporary licence applications should be turned around within 48 hours subject to the applicant passing the criminal history check,” Gary stated. “Applications for a full licence will still require police vetting which will add approximately five days to the process.

“Our recommendation is that staff carry the letter from the PSPLA confirming approval with them whilst on duty pending the uplift of their licence from the nominated Post Office.”

Difficulty defining ‘essential services’

According to Matthew Kirk writing in the US National Law Review, “Governments are not typically trying to define what “essential services” are – beyond stressing the obvious importance of food, pharmaceuticals and healthcare.”

He suggests that there are probably two reasons behind this

“First is that… they want as much of the economy as possible to keep functioning, so they are defining what should stop, not defining what must continue. Second is that it would be extraordinarily hard to do effectively. Supply chains are now so interconnected that you would have to look at every single company and organisation to work out whether it was contributing part of an essential service or not – there is simply neither time nor capacity to do this.”

As in New Zealand, security workers in the US, for example, are not specifically mentioned under the law enforcement / public safety category, but they are picked up in other categories.

They are considered essential under the category of ‘Communications and information technology’, which also includes data center operators, HVAC and electrical engineers, IT managers, software and hardware engineers, database administrators, call centres, wireline and wireless providers, cable service providers, satellite operations, and manufacturers and distributors of communications equipment, among others.

Security personnel in the US – or specifically those who “maintain building access control and physical security measures” – are also considered essential under a “Other community-based government operations and essential functions” category. Workers who support the “the essential services required to meet national security commitments to the federal government and U.S. military” are also covered.

By contrast, some jurisdictions, such as the Canadian province of Ontario, have been specific in their ‘essential services’ listing of private security providers. The Ontario list includes a distinct entry (item 68 out of 74) that specifies “businesses providing security services including private security guards; monitoring or surveillance equipment and services.”

In New Zealand’s essential service list, the ‘Public Safety and National Security’ category includes the Department of Corrections, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand Police, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Government Communications Security Bureau, courts of New Zealand, and “any person employed or contracted in a public safety or national security role.” It is unclear, however, whether or not private security workers are captured under this category.

But New Zealand is not the only jurisdiction where the lack of clear acknowledgement of the security industry as an essential service has been met with concern by peak security industry bodies.

In a message to members on 20 March, ASIAL Chief Executive Officer Bryan de Caires stated that ASIAL has called on Government “to clarify essential service status in the event that a lockdown is implemented as concern in the security industry mounts. We have also written to federal, state and territory government to explore how available capacity and capability in the industry can be harnessed to support law enforcement resources and other measures in responding to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.”

The UK’s security industry is also awaiting word from government in relation to the status of security workers.

“Essential worker status is currently not granted to security officers, however, if there were a lockdown of the City of London, or the wider London area, there would be an urgent need for this to be readdressed,” stated London City Security Council (CSC) Chair David Ward in a 20 March release. “Giving security officers essential worker status would mean that they would be able to continue to work, providing security to many of the key financial and iconic buildings within the City.”

The British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) has also called on the UK government to clarify the status of security officers.

Whether or not it is the New Zealand government’s policy intention that services provided by the private security industry be considered under the ‘Public Safety and National Security’ category, it is important to note that ‘essential business’ includes all entities providing essential services “including their supply chains”. 

On this basis, it could be established that a security provider delivering essential services at the border, in construction (related to essential services and critical infrastructure), in the courts and justice sector, health sector, financial sector, FMG production and distribution, government, primary industries, transport, utilities and communications, or any of the other essential service categories listed, is providing an ‘essential service’.