UK Event Research Programme findings



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UK sporting and live music events research findings on the spread of covid-19 Image: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

In a world plagued by COVID-19 and its variants Delta and Omicron, with Omicron devastating the world again, holding events safely has become the topmost priority of the events industry.

In February 2021, the Prime Minister of United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, asked the Events Research Programme (ERP) to lead a review of how events with larger crowd sizes could return without social distancing, while limiting the transmission of COVID-19 as much as practical. This concise report presents the findings from Phase I, II and III of the Events Research Programme (ERP) to inform how events can be reopened with reduced risk.

The Events Research Programme (ERP) (Government of United Kingdom) aims to examine the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from attendance at events and explore ways to enable people to attend a range of events safely.
 

Phase I findings

The ‘UK Government’ stated that over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many changes upon our daily lives, including restrictions on a wide range of events due to the public health risks that gatherings pose when infection rates are high or increase substantially.

The emergence of new variants (Delta and now Omicron which is causing havoc globally) means we must remain vigilant in the global fight against this virulent virus. The policies influencing the reopening of events should be guided first and foremost by protecting the health of the public.
 

ERP objectives

The ERP is a world-leading study that is pioneering the return of events in a structured, scientifically and ethically robust manner to enable events to return at a scale not previously trialed. The objectives of the ERP were to build evidence on the risks associated with events-related transmission routes of the COVID-19 virus, the public health characteristics of events and surrounding activities, and, the extent to which risk-mitigation measures can be implemented.
 

ERP pilots

Between April 17th and May 15th, 2021, Phase I of the ERP conducted nine pilots, some running across multiple days. The pilot selection was based on event settings that would provide substantial data and transferable learning that could be generalized across many settings.
 

Safe events

The ERP has focused on the measures necessary to ensure the safe return of large events and closed settings. The mitigations should also consider the financial and social impact on businesses, organizations and individuals as well as public health considerations.
 

ERP observations

  • The variation of transmission risk factors within a venue matters as well as the differences in risk between types of venue. Outdoor spaces are generally lower risk than indoor spaces. However, all venues are different and may have indoor spaces such as toilets, food/drink concessions and corridors which can pose higher risks;
  • Large unstructured gatherings indoors where there is significant mixing of people in close proximity typically pose a higher risk;
  • The ERP pilots demonstrated how risk mitigation measures could be put in place to reduce and manage the risks identified for events;
  • Compliance with requirements to wear a face covering and social distancing was mostly high, with lower compliance observed in higher risk areas, exacerbating overall transmission risk without sufficient mitigations in place;
  • Pre-event lateral flow testing, questionnaire-based screening and consent to link event booking and test result data, as conditions of admittance to events, were accepted by audiences for most types of events and helped public health teams to respond to any potential outbreaks; and
  • It is challenging to generate robust, generalizable evidence of the transmission risk associated with particular events.

 
The creation of the ERP was motivated by the major impact that COVID-19 has had on sectors that stage and put on events.
 

Pre-pandemic activity

Although social distancing has been effective at reducing the risk of transmission, it has been financially challenging for events, leading to reductions in capacity (anywhere between 20 percent and 70 percent depending on the venue) which is financially unsustainable within current business models.
 
The following mitigations will have an effect on attendance:

  • COVID-19 pre-event testing: Fifteen percent more likely to attend an event;
  • Social distancing (1m+): Two percent less likely to attend an event;
  • Face coverings required (two hours): Twenty-eight percent less likely to attend an event;
  • No food/drink allowed at the event: Forty-three percent less likely to attend;
  • Two-hour delay to enter and exit: Sixty-two percent less likely to attend an event;
  • Vaccinated people say they are more likely to attend events with pre-event testing than non-vaccinated people;
  • People belonging to an ethnic minority or those aged 16-29 are eight percent more likely to attend an event if it has social distancing mitigations in place;
  • The availability of food and drink is more important to those in the 16-29 and 30-49 age groups when considering their likelihood of attending an event; and
  • Men are also less likely than women to attend an event where face coverings are required for more than two hours.

 

ERP Phase I objectives:

The objectives of Phase I of the program were to build evidence on the risks associated with how coronavirus is transmitted, the interaction with characteristics of events and surrounding activities and the extent to which mitigation measures can effectively address these risks.
 

Pilots’ lessons

Running the pilots has highlighted that testing, data and contact tracing infrastructure is not currently designed to provide dedicated testing to significant numbers of events. Current asymptomatic testing sites (ATS) and contact tracing capacity has been designed to support local authorities to provide testing for groups who are most likely to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and who may be less able to access testing.
 

Staggered entry-exit

Staggering entries and exits for larger events could result in significant delays which could both reduce the attendees’ enjoyment of events and increase the amount of time people spend at events. For example, football fans are accustomed to leaving early if the result is already decided. Events and venue organizers have noted that this mitigation could result in extra costs, for example in terms of increased staffing. Other key operational considerations are compliance with staggered exits and prioritization, for example, managing the needs of families and people with disabilities.
 

‘Soft power’

The United Kingdom is, and will continue to be, world-renowned for its cultural and events sectors which form part of the UK’s ‘soft power’. Phase I of the Events Research Programme (ERP) is one of many UK Government initiatives to facilitate the return of a thriving industry which continues to support the UK’s global influence.

Based on findings from Phase I of the ERP, existing guidance will be updated, including organized events guidance which is designed to help event organizers and local authorities in England ensure that events are able to go ahead as safely as possible. The guidance will be applicable to any organized event or gathering of any size, both indoors and outdoors.
 

Phases II and III

 

ERP Phases I, II and III

The ERP consisted of three phases. Phase I ran from April 17th to May 15th, 2021. Phases II and III of the ERP were designed to build on the findings from Phase I and ran from June 10th to July 25th, 2021. These pilot events provided the opportunity to generate further evidence, particularly around transmission risk as well as around the implementation and operational considerations of the findings from Phase I.

The ERP began during Step 2 of the Government’s Roadmap, when large events were still prohibited and interventions to contain COVID transmission in place. The ERP was the largest Science-based program in the United Kingdom, outside of clinical trials, to inform innovative policy and its implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April and July, a total of 31 pilot events were conducted in England across a range of settings and sectors, with over two million participants involved in an ERP event.
 

Phases II and III

The ‘UK Government’ further stated that Phases II and III of the ERP set out to build on findings from Phase I. Phase II was implemented with the primary research aim of resolving the question: What is the impact on risk of transmission of events held at full capacity, without social distancing, with entry conditional upon pre-event negative lateral flow test (LFT) results? The primary research question for Phase III was: What is the impact on risk of transmission of events held indoors or outdoors at or close to full capacity, without social distancing? The later phases of the program also allowed further exploration of the logistics of running events (including testing the NHS COVID Pass) and the implementation of mitigation measures to reduce risk.

The studies investigated factors associated with risk of transmission of COVID-19 at events using high resolution monitoring, both distributed throughout each venue and following individual attendee journeys. Data collected during the studies included, among others, CO2 measurements, airflows, occupancy levels, crowd density estimates, and adherence with mitigations (e.g., face coverings, crowd movement) across a wide range of events.
 

Event Delivery

Generally, event organizers who participated in the ERP were very enthusiastic about their involvement, with many seeing it as part of their duty to their sectors in order to aid their reopening. Government-event organizer relationships were on the whole very positive.
 

A work in progress…

Analysis of the ERP data continues and detailed scientific reports on each study will be produced and submitted for publication in peer reviewed journals by research teams, to be published with open access.

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