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Government finally publishes Events Research Programme findings, live sector calls for confirmation of 19 Jul reopening

By | Published on Monday 28 June 2021

Live Music

The UK government finally published the findings of the first phase of its Events Research Programme on Friday afternoon. Having previously resisted calls to make those findings public with immediate effect – only offering non-committal timelines about future publication when questioned by MPs and journalists – the sudden splurge of ERP data followed legal action by the live music and theatre industries.

The Events Research Programme has been investigating how to safely stage higher capacity shows as COVID restrictions ease. A number of events have taken part in the programme in recent months, with ever increasing capacities, to see whether such events increase the risk of new COVID infections, and also what logistical measures can be employed to reduce any such risk.

Initial reports suggested that researchers had found that certain logistical measures could indeed be employed to reduce the risk of COVID transmissions, meaning that attending a full capacity show was no more risky than going to a restaurant or shopping centre. However, the live industry became increasingly frustrated that no official findings were being published, meaning they couldn’t factor said findings into their production plans.

Rumours circulated that the Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport was actually ready to publish some initial findings, but that the office of Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson was delaying publication, because the results of the ERP contradicted current government policy that full capacity shows could not return until at least mid-July.

Increasingly frustrated by the delays, reps for the live music and theatre sectors began legal action to force publication on Thursday. And lo and behold, publication neatly followed on Friday.

Although the ERP continues and the government says that it has not yet made a final decision on when full capacity shows can return, initial findings do show that with “mitigating factors, such as social distancing at pinch points, face coverings and staggered entry and exit times, events can be conducted more safely at increased capacities while maintaining a low risk of transmission”.

Running through some key conclusions, the government states that “both indoor and outdoor events carry levels of transmission risk but ‘pinch points’ in venues where attendees may congregate for extended periods carry greater transmission risk. Large indoor events with high crowd density and proximity may pose a higher potential risk of transmission as a result of close proximity and poor ventilation”.

But on the up side, “nearly all CO2 levels recorded at the pilot events were within the bounds of reasonable ventilation benchmarks, with outdoor spaces clearly better for ventilation than indoors”. And “mitigations such as face coverings, ventilation, testing, restrictions on food and drink, and social distancing/capacity caps all contribute to reducing transmission risk”.

As for the willingness of audience members to comply with any restrictions, it adds: “Compliance with social distancing, face covering and testing requirements was generally high across all events where they were required (96.2% of people in sampled areas were observed wearing face coverings correctly while seated during the event), particularly in indoor environments (98.3%) in comparison to events conducted outdoors or with a substantial open air element (92.1%)”.

With regard to COVID infections, the published findings confirm what had been suggested previously by ministers in media interviews. Only 28 cases of COVID-19 were recorded among attendees following the first nine events in the programme, which together were attended by 58,000 people.

However, possibly to justify that current government policy of delaying the return of full capacity shows until at least mid-July, the ERP report does have some caveats.

The government notes that: “The report acknowledges that these [impressive] numbers reflect the rigorous testing regime in place for attendance at each event and relatively low levels of community prevalence of COVID-19 at the time of running the first phase of pilots. It also acknowledges that uptake of post event PCR tests, used to measure transmission, was also low”.

That latter point relates to the fact that, while attendees were obliged to take a so called lateral flow test to prove that they did not have COVID-19 prior to entering an event, they were also encouraged to take a separate PCR test both before and after the show. However there was “low uptake of PCR testing before and after events”, which “meant evidence of direct transmission at events was challenging to determine”.

Either way, the music industry argues that the findings published on Friday mainly confirm what it had already heard on the grapevine, that providing certain logistical measures are employed, it is safe for full capacity shows to return.

To that end, various reps for the sector have called on ministers to confirm that such shows will definitely return on 19 Jul, by moving England into stage four of the government’s COVID road map on that date. They also want formal guidance on what measures government will expect events to implement, and assurances that ministers won’t just keep extending the ERP, so to allow certain popular events to go ahead while the sector at large is still in shutdown.

UK Music boss Jamie Njoku-Goodwin says: “It’s welcome that the government has responded to our calls to publish this vital data on the pilot events. This is a critical step towards getting the live music industry up and running. The music industry has been working flat out to make gigs, concerts and festivals safe and reduce the risk of COVID transmission at events. The Events Research Programme data vindicates the massive efforts and innovations our sector has made to restart the live music industry. Now we have evidence showing events can take place safely, the government must now give the green light for events to go ahead without social distancing from 19 Jul”.

Noting that a number of upcoming sporting events have been given the go ahead – albeit by adding them to the latest phase of the Events Research Programme – Njoku-Goodwin goes on: “With 60,000 fans expected at Wembley for the Euros, thousands at Wimbledon and a capacity crowd of 140,000 at the Silverstone Grand Prix, it is only right that major live music events are also able to proceed safely. We will continue talking to the government to get as many live events back on stage as possible from the expected 19 Jul reopening date to deliver a great British summer of music”.

Meanwhile Paul Reed, CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals, says: “We welcome the government finally publishing the findings of the ERP phase one pilot events. Although wide ranging, in many respects, the report tells us what we already know: Most significantly, that there were no substantial outbreaks at these events, with 28 cases across nine events and 58,000 attendees. Additionally, outdoor spaces are generally lower risk than indoor, mitigation measures can reduce and manage risk, and audiences will comply with pre-event testing and other measures to attend an event”.

“Following this positive outcome”, he adds, “what we need now is clear guidance from government on exactly what the expectations are for festivals around testing regimes and other protocols this summer. We are actively engaging with government on this. For festivals who are still planning, it is clearly not a conversation that can wait until 19 Jul. We welcome further festival pilot events as an opportunity for the ERP to scale up and develop the knowledge base around reopening safely, but we also simply cannot get stuck in endless rounds of pilots. The objective must be to reopen festivals safely with the right mitigations in place at step four”.

Echoing those concerns about a never-ending ERP – as well as criticising the measures that had to be taken to get these findings published – Greg Parmley of live sector trade group LIVE says: “We are pleased that the government has finally published some of the ERP research but it is incredibly disappointing that it took the live music and the theatre industry launching legal action to force them to do so”.

“We will of course read the report with interest but we are pleased that there were no COVID outbreaks associated with any of the pilots detected, either by testing or by a general increase in community incidence. It is also pleasing to see that the air quality of the indoor events was, in almost all cases, the same or better than being in an office for a short working day”.

However, he adds, “it is completely unfair that our industry finds itself stuck in seemingly-interminable rounds of research before we can open when no such research is being done for other places, such as restaurants, shops or public transport. With sensible mitigations, including simple COVID-certification, there is no reason why we should not be able to reopen on 19 Jul”.