Our pilot events illuminated the means of managing Covid risks

From The Guardian

Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Fans watch Blossom perform at Sefton Park Festival in Liverpool, one of the pilot mass events that took place in May 2021. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Prof Iain Buchan, the principal investigator for the Events Research Programme at Liverpool, explains how the trial events generated a large amount of valuable data about Covid transmission.

As lead researcher for the Liverpool pilots in the Events Research Programme (ERP), I would like to set out some important facts in response to your article regarding the phase one report (Covid event pilots compromised by low uptake of PCR tests, experts say, 25 June). The ERP is exploring how events with larger crowd sizes can return without social distancing, while minimising the risks of Covid-19 outbreaks. The programme comprises environmental studies of air quality and crowd movement in venues; epidemiological studies of virus spread at and around events; behavioural studies of audience experience; and economic and operational studies of running such events with risk-mitigation measures in place. The work has generated a large amount of valuable data, early analysis of which was reported last week.

People participating in the pilots consented to take part, answered questions, took tests, allowed their data to be linked for study and reported high levels of satisfaction. It is also worth noting that:

 The pilots were designed to test the feasibility of measures to reduce risk and not to provide an accurate estimate of transmission of the Covid-19 virus at events. The public health objective was to prevent and control outbreaks, not to reduce virus transmission to a specific level.

 Using a combination of research (RT-PCR) tests and data from public health surveillance systems, we found no major outbreaks of Covid-19 around the events. The pilots ran at the same time as large outbreaks in audiences’ home populations around smaller gatherings at venues that did not have ERP risk-mitigation measures in place.

 RT-PCR is not a gold standard for events-admission testing as the results take too long to become available, during which time an individual incubating the virus may have become infectious.

Areas identified for improved risk management included raising awareness of wider Covid-19 symptoms (relevant to the vaccination era) and advice not to attend if feeling unwell, moving the time of (repeat) testing closer to events, having a ventilation plan for each venue and mobilising contact-tracing teams before events open.

The ERP pilots were the first to bring audiences back to full capacity, addressing not only the economic survival of the sector but also the mental health and social wellbeing these events provide to many individuals and communities. These include the young and those in disadvantaged areas who have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 restrictions. A large proportion of the economy in many areas participating in ERP depend on events, visitors and hospitality – 48% in Liverpool.

Partnership between events’ organisers, public health teams and audiences in these areas provided particularly rich learning of how to put risk-mitigation measures in place promptly, flexibly and effectively. The whole ERP programme continues to generate rich data that will help this sector reopen sooner and safer than it otherwise could.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 30th June 2021 – “Our pilot events illuminated the means of managing Covid risks – please visit The Guardian for full context and attribution.