Festivals provide invaluable research – keep the party going

On 2nd May, the Covid test event in Sefton Park, Liverpool, greeted approximately 5000 punters who could breach the 2-metre perimeter and exhibit their maskless faces for one night only as part of the government’s Event Research Programme. Alongside a ticket, the revellers had to produce a negative test taken just before the event started. Despite being an indoor concert, a setting where Covid infection rates are typically higher, only two tested positive, prompting Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to describe it as a “success”.

Skip two months to Latitude festival, which welcomed almost 40,000 festivalgoers, all required to be fully vaccinated or test negative within 24 hours before arriving, where they were met by mask-wearing staff taking lateral flow tests every 72 hours. Unlike the test pilot, 1000 punters were recorded to have tested positive following the event, excluding those who hadn’t tested afterwards. Oliver Dowden did not call this a success.

Things got worse: three weeks later at Boardmasters festival in Newquay, 10% of the 50,000 went back home with more than hangovers, despite the festival having the same requirements as Latitude. In some cases, Boardmasters were stricter with Covid regulations, refusing initial entry to over 450 punters or asking them to leave mid-festival because they failed to provide proof of negative tests.

So how can events resume safely? Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for epidemiologists to research this question, and fewer to find a definite answer. Although they may increase infection rates, festivals provide an opportunity for researchers to learn more about the virus and how it transmits in a natural experiment to make more effective plans to maximize the safety of those attending. Not only for future music festivals, but for cultural events, sports matches, places of worship, supermarkets, or anywhere else people congregate.

I believe the cost is negligible compared to the value of the data. More importantly, would there have been new cases regardless of whether the festival took place? As Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn said: “all these kids would have been in parks, pub gardens, their mates’ gardens, they’d have been having barbecues, hanging around on street corners and partying one way or another to a greater or lesser degree, and guaranteed that they’d have been partying with people who they had no idea whether they had been tested covid clear or not.”

The national statistics reflect this sentiment, the increase seemingly unaffected since festivals restarted. In fact, new Covid cases have decreased dramatically, from a 7-day average of around 42,000 new cases just before Latitude to a current 7-day average of around 25,000 since then. Festivals have also encouraged those who would otherwise not have tested to find out they had Covid, limiting the spread and providing more accurate data.

With little cost and a massive reward, festivals should be allowed to continue for the sake of vital research. Who better to test on than those who are willing, usually young, and have been waiting years to experience festivals?

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Jim Gell

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September 2021
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