PSA: The Stars Collide, Then They Decide

As we accelerate towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and towards the more manageable endemic, PSA’s Andy Lenthall believes the focus must shift to building consumer confidence.

PSA’s Andy Lenthall assesses the gradual re-opening of live events with audiences.

Just when we’ll be able to gather together in densities that allow for a functioning, financially sustainable events industry is anybody’s guess right now. Even those best placed to make a prediction are unwilling to do so; calls for a ‘not before’ date fall on deaf ears and it’s certain that schools, universities, and retail outlets are first in line when it comes to the post-lockdown gradual reopening.

The fairly consistent message in working groups, industry briefings and ministerial round tables is that a gradual return is more likely than a rush to normality once the most at-risk people are vaccinated. That message is delivered not from ministers but from senior scientific advisers to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; they’re keeping industry leaders up to speed on their research into just how we can make an appropriate risk judgement. We’re all fairly used to risk assessment; whether they relate to workplace risks or crowd dynamics, incidents generally result in outcomes affecting those involved; risk of transmission of a highly contagious virus is a different proposition. With leaked papers suggesting the scientific advisers see the rule of six and social distancing for the rest of the year, yet politicians still ‘hope for a happy and free great British summer’ on a friend’s island?

We’ve seen evidence from test events that have taken place overseas and we can take heart from positive results. An event in Spain was shown to not spread infections, although it was a limited audience that was carefully tested, proving that people without COVID-19 can gather and not transmit COVID-19. The real test for testing is at full capacity for a large audience, nobody has yet decided how tests would be paid for either, with one provider recently suggesting that £100 isn’t much compared to the price of a festival ticket. Perhaps hope for testing lies in the coming together of accuracy and price; reports of a low-cost, accurate, ‘spit in a tube’ test with the ability to spot infection in asymptomatic carriers is promising.

The next best thing to a guaranteed COVID-19-free audience is one that won’t get ill if infected. At the time of writing, the vaccination roll-out amongst those over 70 and those that are clinically vulnerable would pose a challenge to anyone designing a line up. The vaccine news that we all wait on is its ability to prevent onward infection, asymptomatic carriers pose a great threat to those without protection; proof of onward infection prevention or a combination of vaccination and testing would perhaps be required to speed us towards sustainable activity. We hope for the former.

While we wait for immunity and science to provide certainty, the measures we currently take are key to control. After three lockdowns, we’re all aware of their effectiveness in bringing the spread under control. On the flipside, we can see that hospitals can soon be under immense pressure when infections are allowed to build, showing that we have a long way to go to build immunity – each spike has been caused despite people being immune through antibodies from prior infections. Current measures still have a role to play then, and live events will still need to have measures in place such as regular cleaning, sanitiser stations, face coverings and attendee tracing. It’s the Swiss cheese model of safety; full of holes yet nothing gets through.

In a recent test event overseas, ventilation was cited as a key method of control; we’re aware that aerosol transmission can present an infection risk, but moving old air out and clean air in at fast enough rates vastly reduces this risk. Add active air cleaning within ventilation and air conditioning systems and risks are reduced further.

February will see a series of test events in Luxembourg, organisations and venues in the UK are lining up post-lockdown tests too, taking all current measures initially, throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at it then gradually increasing capacities is one approach; full testing of full capacity to prove the modelling is another. These tests will be across all events sectors, part government sanctioned, part sector funded. Perhaps people would like to own their own data and evidence.

Of course, some would say that it’s too late, given that Glastonbury Festival announced a further postponement until 2022, but it’s perhaps the biggest that go first and smaller events that require less work in advance can delay decisions or model around required measures as they are introduced. We certainly did see plans for reduced capacity indoor shows before the current lockdown, many smaller venues were using UK Culture Recovery Fund grants to fill the fiscal gaps when organising reduced capacity shows. Any money earmarked for shows that have been prevented due to current restrictions can and probably will be used to fund shows up until June. The advantages of that funding will spread beyond those supply companies that received grants; it has and will create work – no matter what kind of show, full capacity, a socially distanced audience or livestream, everyone will need at least one button pushing.

This isn’t a matter of sitting and waiting for someone to tell us when we can go back to work, it’s a combination of supported events, developing science and the collected minds of leading industry practitioners and scientific advisers. That is happening regularly, well in advance of any easing of restrictions, a list of the things we can do is being mapped against the list of things we need to do, with the former getting longer as science brings testing prices down and capacities up and the latter perhaps getting shorter as vaccinations increase immunity.

One element that is discussed less often in live events circles is treatment. As vaccines need testing and approval, current drug treatments that are used for other conditions but reduce the risk of death from COVID-19 can be introduced more rapidly. This is another crucial element in the reduction in risk; reducing the severity of the outcome.

This coming together of science, research and practice through international efforts across many industry sectors is where answers lie. As we accelerate towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and towards the more manageable endemic, effort may soon need to move towards building consumer confidence, which may well be as simple as opening the doors and saying ‘welcome back’.

There’s a note in the diary to read this in a year’s time.

This article originally appeared in issue #258 of TPi, which you can read here.