Just 28 cases of Covid-19 and “no major or uncontrolled outbreaks” were detected in nine large-scale pilot events, involving a total of 58,000 people, that were held as part of a government analysis examining the feasibility of reopening society.
Scientists behind the Events Research Programme (ERP), which was commissioned in February 2021 to help shape the roadmap out of lockdown, described the findings as “reassuring” but warned that the case numbers must be treated with “extreme caution” given the low number of people who tested themselves after the events.
They acknowledged that the degree of uptake of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing before and after the pilot tests meant it was “challenging to determine” the full nature of Covid transmission at the different venues, but said “no substantial outbreaks” were linked to the events.
The ERP was designed to explore how the reopening of mass events can be conducted safely, with and without social distancing or mask-wearing, while limiting the transmission of Covid-19 as much as possible.
It drew its results from nine pilots held in the UK between 17 April and 15 May – including the FA Cup final, the Brit Awards and the World Snooker Championships – and involved a total of 58,000 participants, who were required to prove a negative lateral flow test (LFT) as a condition of entry.
All attendees were also asked to take a voluntary pre- and post-event PCR test to aid the programme’s research, but only 15 per cent of people did this, raising the possibility that some individuals may have been infectious or infected at the time of the event but went undetected because of the inaccuracy of the LFTs.
The report confirmed that 28 cases were recorded during the pilot events. Of these cases, 11 were identified as potentially infectious at an event, and a further 17 people were deemed to have picked up the virus at or around the time of the event.
Out of the 17, six people from a nightclub event in Liverpool were found to have known each other and mixed as friends. “The chance of them having caught the virus outside the event is high,” said Iain Buchan, a professor at the University of Liverpool who was involved in the research. The numbers presented by the report have a “complex set of circumstances”, he added.
However, Prof Buchan said that all of the cases were swiftly dealt with by local health authorities and that none led to any major outbreaks.
Indoor events, including at Liverpool’s Circus nightclub, which hosted almost 7,000 people over two nights, saw 10 cases recorded. Among the 10,000 people who attended the World Snooker Championship over 17 days, six cases were reported. No cases were reported from the Brit Awards, which involved 3,500 participants.
A range of measures at the events were used to combat the transmission of Covid-19, including staggered entry and exit times, ventilation, social distancing and face coverings.
The authors of the research “acknowledge” that the low numbers detected “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” – estimated to be between one in 1,000 and one in 1,500, according to Professor Paul Monks, chief scientific adviser for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
He said the report’s cases reflected the infection rates seen at the time for each event. “In some sense, that’s the reassurance,” said Prof Monks.
The study also highlighted potential “pinch points” at events, such as toilets or concession stands, where people may congregate for extended periods and which pose a greater risk of transmission.
The scientists did not say whether the results of their study supported the recent decision to increase the capacity of Wembley Stadium to 60,000 for the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 – a move that has been questioned by a number of experts.
“What we've demonstrated here is a balance of risk,” said Professor Tom Rodden, chief scientific adviser for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “That has fed into the decisions in and around handling and increasing capacities at all of our events.”
A second phase of pilot events has also been completed, with data set to be analysed from the group-stage matches of Euro 2020 hosted at Wembley Stadium, the Download Pilot music festival in Leicestershire, and Royal Ascot, which have all taken place across the past month.
One of the key tools used to facilitate the running of the pilot events was the lateral flow test, which are far less accurate than the laboratory-based PCR tests but deliver results in as little as 30 minutes.
Analysis has shown that the LFTs correctly identify, on average, 72 per cent of people who are infected with the virus and have symptoms. In those without symptoms, this figure drops to 58 per cent. But limited data makes it hard to draw firm conclusions, while accuracy varies between the different brands of LFTs.
“The lateral flow test is designed to detect people who are likely infectious,” said Prof Buchan. “PCR will detect people who are a mixture of infectious and not infectious.”
In those instances where people signed up to the additional voluntary testing, the PCRs were used retrospectively – given the time delay in processing results – to confirm whether someone had attended an event with or without the virus and then left either still Covid-free or infected.
Carbon dioxide detectors and movement sensors were also fitted at some indoor venues, including the Crucible, home to the World Snooker Championships, to monitor ventilation levels and assess the flow of air and people throughout the venues to find pinch points.