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Long read: Event Research Programme report analysis

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has finally released its report on the Event Research Programme (ERP) – a series of pilot events which took place in England.

By now, I expect most of you have glanced at the headline figures to come out of the report but, as ever, things aren’t as straightforward as we may perhaps want them to be.

Read: Event Research Programme Phase 1 report

Between 17 April and 15 May, the first phase of the ERP conducted nine pilot events in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, with variations of seated, standing, structured and unstructured audience styles, and a range of participant numbers. 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.

Sadly, though, the ERP has come in for some harsh criticism. For starters, when it says “transferable learning that could be generalised across many settings”, that to me implies that a conference and a rave could face similar guidance. Now, I know things can get raucous in the hotel bar after the annual congress, but reaching rave level is a bit of a stretch.

Then there is this situation in which major sporting and music events, including the British Grand Prix, Wimbledon and Download, are being put on the ERP simply as a means to get them running, which, to many, seems a bit of a middle finger to the rest of the industry. But hey, some events are running.

Why have they done this? Well, it’s impossible to know for sure without sounding like a typically cynical columnist, but what I do know is that when you are on the ERP, you are indemnified – the Government will help you out if things go wrong. Translation: the event insurance issue has not been resolved.

However, that is bar the point of this analysis. The report released on Friday has revealed plenty of findings, but has raised some serious questions, too.

Numbers in context

Let us look at those headline numbers that have emerged from the report. Phase 1 one of the ERP, which included nine events (but only one business event), hosted 58,000 people. Of these 58,000 only 28 recorded a positive Covid-19 test: 11 were identified as potentially infectious at an event and a further 17 were identified as potentially infected at or around the time of an event

However, and there are some who are very keen to point this out, only 15% of the 58,000 returned their test results post event.

Among the blizzard of numbers included in the report, this statistic is one that cannot be ignored. Fifteen percent of 58,000 is 8,700, so 28 people from that total is 0.3%.

To confuse matters, in Section 3.3, the report notes that across the nine Phase I pilot events a total of 26,000 PCR tests were analysed, including 12,000 pre-event PCR tests and 14,000 post-event PCR tests. The latter reads somewhat higher than the 15% figure.

But with a conservative guess that only 8,700 returned their test results, it is still a good sample size, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: the virus will not go away, even with the population fully vaccinated, it will remain in circulation.

Even though the now dominant Delta variant is clearly more transmissible, there does appear to be a divergence between infections and hospitalisations, and then also to deaths. Two doses of the vaccination reduce the risk of hospitalisation by 84%, professor Chris Whitty noted in a press conference on 14 June.

However, a positive was this hidden comment in Section 4.4 of the report: “Mindful of the caveats, no substantial outbreaks were identified by public health teams and their surveillance systems around any of the events.” So, with that in mind, despite only 15% of people returning their post-event results, no wider outbreaks were recorded as a result of the events

This is where I must exercise caution. I am not a scientist, and nor is anyone who engages with me on social media, so I am not qualified on what this divergence means beyond, in layman’s terms, revealing that the vaccine is reducing the impact. That’s all we can realistically hope for.

What I am qualified to write, however, is that the events industry cannot be prevented from earning any income by law beyond 19 July.

Forget zero-Covid, it’s zero-event business that frightens many in this sector. And I don’t write that lightly, nor ignore the threat of the virus.

Observations

What did the ERP observe? Above all else, the key area of focus is ventilation, and there is little in the report that will come of a surprise. “The variation of transmission risk factors within a venue matters as well as the differences in risk between types of venue,” the report reads. “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.”

So, the risk of transmission is higher in confined spaces. Check.

To reduce risk of transmission in the nightclub toilets and other confined spaces, the report says it will look more closely at mitigation measures in Phases 2 and 3, which isn’t entirely clear, and flies in the face of the Government’s rhetoric which is to do away with all measures come 19 July…

Of course, the report pours cold water on the entire programme in Observation 6, in which it says: “It is challenging to generate robust, generalisable evidence of the transmission risk associated with particular events.

“Phase I pilots were necessarily limited in scale and took place during a period of low prevalence of the virus. Further, they were insufficient in scale, scope and study designs to generate any direct evidence based on transmission data. Therefore, evidence on case numbers should be treated with caution.”

Economic impact

The ERP draws attention to the scale of the events industry in economic terms, but I must be honest and say I don’t recognise any of the numbers. We can talk about the Standardised Industrial Classification (SIC) codes later, but this just proves my point once more: the events industry is not administrated correctly and therefore situations like this leave it exposed. I’m not going to print the numbers cited in the report as it will only muddy the water, but you can view what was reported here in section 2.1.

Read: Why has the events industry been left behind: SIC codes

What is does say in the footnote, however, is the most dishearteningly accurate observation in the entire report, and the cause of many of the industry’s issues: “There is no official ‘events’ sector. We have defined events generally as all sectors where you would be required to purchase a ticket to gain entry which would be for a specific activity such as watching a match. Weddings are therefore not included here although evidence from the ERP will help inform how best to safely run weddings after June 2021.”

The real numbers: over £31bn total is comprised of business events, principally meetings, conferences, and exhibitions, while almost £39bn is contributed by leisure events, including arts and cultural events, music events and festivals, and sporting and recreational events. Weddings is a further £15bn: total: £84bn. And we employ 1.5m people, or did anyway.

Social distancing

The report notes that although social distancing has been effective at reducing the risk of transmission in day-to-day life, it has been “financially challenging” for events, leading to reductions in capacity (anywhere between 20% and 70% depending on the venue) which is financially unsustainable within current business models.

The report goes on to say that, looking forwards, Covid-19 mitigations at events could “significantly increase or decrease the likelihood of an individual attending an event”. It cites evidence from ONS’ Opinions and Lifestyle Survey of 3,810 adults across the UK between 28 April and 3 May 2021. It suggests the following mitigations will have an effect on attendance, which I have copied from the report:

  • Covid-19 pre-event testing: 15% more likely to attend an event
  • Social Distancing (1m+): 2% less likely to attend an event
  • Face coverings required (2hrs): 28% less likely to attend an event
  • No food/drink allowed at the event: 43% less likely to attend
  • 2-hour delay to enter and exit: 62% less likely to attend an event

It is nigh on impossible to know whether not any business event delegates were asked. I suspect not. However, it is noted that those who are vaccinated are more likely to want to attend an event.

But for all the talk one thing is certain: if a venue cannot run at 100%, it will eventually cease to operate.

Environmental and behavioural studies

As I noted in my review of the pilot business event, the industry’s capacity for delivering safe events was never in question. The scientists wanted to observe a real-life case study to understand environmental and behavioural elements.

The report says scientists examined the risk of airborne and surface transmission based on environmental data indicative of transmission risk. In layman’s terms, again, the risk is higher indoors than outdoors.

Read: Pilot business event: editor's review

On the behaviour front, studies examined how people reacted and responded to the events, including identifying risk factors for non-adherence and motivators for adherence.

The report notes that 2,502 attendees were surveyed across five of the Phase I pilot events, including the three outdoor football matches, the World Snooker Championship and the Sefton Park Pilot outdoor music event. Thirty-seven participants were interviewed, all of whom had participated in the online survey.

Across the nine Phase I pilot events, on-site observations were made over 30 days, 315 temporary cameras were installed and over 3,000 hours of video footage was captured. In total, over 125,000 individual data points were extracted from the footage and used within the analysis. The observational data collected has supported the work of the wider research group. Where appropriate, the outcomes related to movement and behaviour patterns have been shared and cross-referenced with those generated by the environment studies to inform their analysis, including crowd density measures, occupancy levels, patterns in social distancing and face covering compliance.

Findings: masks, social distancing, and testing

Wherever you go, whatever you do beyond 19 July, there will be a risk of Covid-19 transmission. The risk of transmission at any event will depend on several biological, behavioural and environmental factors including, the report says, the prevalence of disease at the time, venue design, extent and effectiveness of venue ventilation, numbers and characteristics of attendees, type, nature and purpose of contact, and length of time spent close to others. 

There are, from what I can tell, three areas to consider when it comes to mitigations: masks, social distancing, and testing. We have looked at social distancing already and established that it is impractical and will force many venues to close permanently.

On face coverings, the report notes: “Correct face covering usage was found to be high across events where required (an average of 96.2% of people in sampled areas were observed wearing face coverings correctly while seated during the event), particularly in indoor environments (98.3%) in comparison to events conducted outdoors or with a substantial open-air element (92.1%).”

Clearly then, people accept masks as something worth doing to get events going again, although the report says that compliance dropped to 59% upon exiting the venue.

That leaves us with testing, which has always lingered over the events industry as a giant, uncertain cloud – in terms of cost and practicality.

The initial target of lateral flow testing within 24 hours (ideally as close to the event time as possible) was found to be “logistically impractical” when using asymptomatic testing sites. There were just too many people.

Participants were asked to take voluntary PCR tests via home test kits that were usually posted out to their home address or collected from a test site or from the event venue. The report says the instruction was to take one test on the day of the event and one five days later, with the results of these tests used for research purposes and outbreak control and as a condition for entry. In reality, tests were taken across a spectrum of days therefore were used positive tests from days -1 to 3 to indicate being infectious at the event, and positive tests from days 4 to 7 to indicate a possibility of having caught Covid-19 at the event.

The testing question: incentives needed

The report says return rates for PCR tests were low at pilot events, “significantly limiting the ability to estimate rates of infection after attending events”. Test return rates were higher for the events where tests were posted to attendees and when an incentive, such as the chance to win free tickets, was offered.

It goes on to say the proportion of participants returning PCR tests varied between 8% and 74% for the pre-event test and between 13% and 66% for the post-event test.

Extremely low PCR test returns were seen in the early days of the World Snooker Championship, when participants had to order tests online. For later events, such as the FA Cup Final, the BRIT Awards and the Reunion 5k organised run, PCR tests were automatically posted to attendees (rather than needing to order them), leading to higher return rates.

An interesting comment appears in this section: “This low and varied level rate of PCR test return significantly limits the direct evidence of transmission from the events, and further reduces the possibility of comparing data pooling across events to give an indication of transmission risks between events.

“It does, however, provide important behavioural insights, showing that attendees are not sufficiently motivated to get tested after attending an event.”

What next: Phases 2 and 3

As reported on 28 June, a second pilot business event has been added, the event will run 18-21 July, overlapping the 19 July in which the Government targets the lifting of restrictions.

The report says Phase II pilots will look to gather more end-to-end outbreak prevention and control data from larger numbers of people in larger crowd sizes attending higher risk events. “Incentives, improved communications and more convenient distribution of test kits will be used to increase PCR returns at Phase II events where these are required.”

However, it hints at the use of ticketing technology to link up with test results, something that is easily said, but not easily done. We will wait and see.

Phase 3 pilots will also focus on Covid-status certification, and the use of the NHS app to facilitate this.

Updated guidance

Section 5.2 of the report says that event guidance will be updated, but no other information is forthcoming. The Association of Event Organisers has challenged the DCMS to reveal this.

Summary

There is a lot of information to consume in the report, for sure, but the majority of us don’t need to concern ourselves too much with CO2 readings and other such things. For many, there is one simple equation: if events are not allowed to run at full capacity from 19 July, without capacity restrictions, then many more businesses will cease to exist.

The virus is not going away, but the vaccine is working. It will be a political decision that determines whether or not we fully unlock on 19 July. Regardless of the transmissibility of the virus, the events industry won’t get financial help because there isn’t an official events industry. Yet, facts don’t cease to exist once they’ve been ignored. Its Hobson’s choice: with the majority of the UK adult population vaccinated by 19 July, we must reopen the events industry.

The sector cannot be ignored any longer.