What is the government's Events Research Programme?

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Anyone watching the football or the tennis on TV might be intrigued as to how so many people appear to be attending them, given that Covid-19 restrictions for events in place are capped at no more than 4,000 people for outdoor events.

So what’s going on? Some events are taking part in the government’s Events Research Programme. The project has released its first report, so we look more into what it has achieved and what it means for events going forward.

What is the pilot events programme?

It’s essentially a review of how events may safely re-open when we reach Step Four of the roadmap (set for 19 July – dubbed ‘freedom day’). Theatre director, Nicholas Hytner (artistic director of the Bridge Theatre) and David Ross, the former chair of the Government's sport, tech and innovation group, were tasked with leading the work.

More than 60,000 fans will be able to attend the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-finals. Photograph: iStock

They explored how larger crowd sizes could return without social distancing, while limiting the transmission of Covid-19 as much as practical. Between 17 April and 15 May, the first phase of the events research programme (ERP) conducted nine pilot events. A report of the findings has now been published. Phase II and III pilots are still ongoing with increasing numbers of spectators.

What are the pilot events?

A lot of the events have been sporting events. In the first phase, these included the FA Cup Semi Final, at Wembley Stadium, the World Snooker Championship at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the League Cup Final.  An England cricket Test match at Edgbaston Stadium, horse racing’s Royal Ascot and UEFA Euro 2020 group stage games at Wembley Stadium were included in the second phase of the pilot programme.

So, is it mainly about sporting venues?

Not really. The pilot selection was based on event settings that would provide “substantial data and transferable learning” that could be generalised across many settings, so the report’s executive summary says.

“We adopted a settings approach where we considered the size of an event, the physical layout (seated, free-moving, mixed), indoor/outdoor and level of crowd activity. We then selected settings with maximum cross over to sectors and chose venues that demonstrated these settings.”

10,000 people attended Download festival, part of the UK government test events to examine how COVID-19 transmission takes place in crowds. Photograph: iStock

How will the findings be used to inform how events run safely in the future?

The report from the government says that, based on findings from Phase I of the ERP, guidance will be updated to help event organisers and local authorities in England ensure that events are able to go ahead as safely as possible.

“The risk management advice in the guidance will set out a range of options for proportionately managing potential risks in relation to the transmission of COVID-19, but will not remove or replace duties and obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Instead, it will provide information to assist event organisers and local authorities in England in ensuring that events are able to go ahead as safely as possible in their area.”

Will testing pre- and post-event continue after ‘Freedom day’ on 19 July? And what about masks?

There is no decision yet made on testing or masks because the government is still trialling their use as part of the pilot events scheme. Fans wanting to attending Wimbledon 2021 will have to show proof of full vaccination via the NHS App, show proof of a negative PCR within 48 hours or show proof of immunity due to a recent covid-19 infection.

The Covid certification system could be rolled out more widely at events following the results of all the pilot programmes. However, Cabinet office minister Michael Gove has indicated they might not be. He has said that the “finely balanced” benefits had to be set against any “hassle factor” of implementing them.

Phase III pilot events will also provide evidence about using Covid-status certification in real-world environments via use of the NHS App, developing learnings on operationality and the impact on public health.

It must be noted that the directors of this work stress: “The report does not make conclusive public health recommendations on the reopening of events at this stage.”

So after 19 July, provided the pilots are a success, will all restrictions be lifted?

Not exactly. I.e. it’s not yet clear. The guidance for events (updated 17 June) at Step 4, says the government aims to ‘remove all legal limits on social contact’ and enable all events to take place.

However, it adds that this will be ‘strictly subject’ to the outcome of the scientific Events Research Programme, potentially using testing to reduce the risk of infection, as well as whether England meets the ‘four tests’ for lifting restrictions.

Have they been a success?

Participants were in general motivated to follow safety precautions, says the report. Reduced face covering compliance was associated with higher numbers of spectators, or when people were congregating in groups. Reduced social distancing compliance was linked with higher attendances and less effective crowd management strategies.

Overall, only 28 cases of Covid-19 were recorded after nine large-scale events ran.

A total of just over 58,000 people went to the indoor and outdoor events but there were "no major outbreaks".

However, the report notes that return rates for PCR tests were low at pilot events ‘significantly limiting the ability to estimate rates of infection after attending events.’

Only 15 per cent of all the attendees completed their tests pre and post the events, or 7,764 people out of a possible 51,319.The cases recorded are likely an underestimate of the true number,” says the report. In addition, it says that direct evidence of the risk of coronavirus transmission at specific types of events cannot be drawn from Phase I of the pilots given the low prevalence of Covid-19 at the time of the pilot events.

Read the Events Research Programme report here


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