Music Festivals and COVID safety

With music festivals in the UK scheduled to return in the coming months, we speak to some of the people working on the reopening of the industry, from festival directors to rapid testing innovators

Feature by Nadia Younes | 30 Jun 2021
  • Safety at Music Festivals

Picture the scene: you’re standing in a field in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people. The sun is shining, you’ve got a cold pint in your hand, and you’re waiting for your favourite band to walk on stage. Twenty minutes later, you’re still waiting. A rowdy group of people position themselves next to you. It starts to cloud over and begins to rain. You begin rummaging in your bag for your mac in a sac. You manage to get it on just in time for a torrential downpour and you’re about to lose your shit. But then the music starts, and that whole chaotic lead-up feels worth it. Unnameable international beer companies don’t do (all) UK music festivals, but if they did they would probably look like this.

For many of us, festival season feels like a strange and distant memory, and live music is one of the things many people have missed the most throughout the pandemic. In fact, a recent study conducted by ticketing app DICE found that almost a quarter of the nation agree that the number one thing they're looking forward to after lockdown is returning to gigs and festivals.

Over the last few months the UK Government has been gathering information from its Events Research Programme, which has seen large crowds gather at a number of indoor and outdoor events. The programme has been developed and will be analysed by a science board, made up of experts in public health, ventilation, modelling, testing, ethics and analysis, who have all been brought in to ensure that it generates sufficient evidence to inform the UK Government’s decision on lifting restrictions on large-scale events.

In the first phase of the pilot events, Festival Republic were brought in to stage an outdoor gig at Sefton Park in Liverpool on 2 May. Attendees were required to take a lateral flow test 24 hours before the event at a community testing site, and had to produce a negative result in order to enter. Additionally, attendees were also encouraged, but not required, to take an at-home PCR test on the day of the event and five days afterwards to monitor any transmission of the virus.

Currently in the second phase of the programme, Festival Republic were brought back to stage a scaled-back version of Download Festival. Operating at an eighth of its usual size, the festival took place over three days, between 18 and 20 June, hosting 10,000 people instead of its usual 80,000, where camping and – crucially to a rock festival – moshing was allowed.

At the time of writing, the results from the Download Pilot have not yet been publicly shared. However, the data will be added to the evidence gathered from the first phase of the programme in determining the return of outdoor and large-scale events as part of Step 4 of the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown, as well as influencing further easing of restrictions in Scotland.

Outside of the UK, EXIT Festival is set to become the first major European festival to take place this summer, celebrating its 20-year anniversary at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, Serbia from 8 to 11 July. With over 50% of Serbia’s adult population vaccinated, the United Festivals of Serbia received approval from the Crisis Response Team to take place on its scheduled dates this year. “The conditions for organising the festivals were previously presented through the security protocol, Safe Events Serbia,” says Sanjin Djukic, Director of PR at EXIT Festival. “Entry is controlled and limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the COVID-19 virus and have antibodies, or are negative on a PCR or rapid antigen test.”

As well as allowing Serbian residents to attend, the festival set out a plan to encourage foreign visitors by offering vaccinations to guests attending from outside the country, made available through an application process on the festival’s website. “We have provided 1500 vaccines that aim to help the citizens of countries that do not have enough vaccines at the moment, as well as to provide an additional contribution to the general safety and security at this year's festival,” says Djukic.

But before all of this, companies were already coming up with innovative ways of reopening the events industry. “Born out of pure frustration,” according to Managing Director Oli Thomas, Swallow Events launched their 15-minute COVID-19 test kits in November last year. The test is the first of its kind to receive MHRA and CE approval for self-administration within the UK and Europe, and has a 98.8% overall accuracy, 96.8% diagnostic sensitivity and 97.1% specificity.

The company offer three levels to their service: Supply Only (just test kits), Rapid Testing Service (test kits and fully-trained staff to administer the tests), and Full Event Compliance Consultancy Service (test kits, fully-trained staff, and a full bespoke delivery plan for the event). “We have been extremely busy quoting and supplying to over 500 events, festivals and businesses globally,” says Thomas.

“Until the [UK] government announces the results of the Events Research Programme and what the protocols are moving forwards, we are all in a holding pattern,” he continues. “It’s extremely frustrating as we have a much more robust and viable solution…[and] were strongly recommended to the Government and DCMS by many of those who took part in the UK Government’s Events Research Programme.”

Just a few months before Swallow Events, Austrian company testFRWD launched their own at-home PCR COVID-19 test kit in September last year, and as of March they began distribution in Germany, Spain, Portugal and the UK. The saliva test kits work simply by using a mouthwash and are pitched as being much easier to use than the invasive swab kits many of us have suffered through. Similar to Swallow's kits, they also have a very high accuracy rate, with a specificity of more than 99%.

The company has since launched a new digital layer to their tests too, called identyME. This can be applied to any home test and combines the person’s digital identity with AI-driven result recognition to provide a digital health certificate that can then be used to enter events. Currently, identyME is in talks with the two biggest suppliers of Antigen tests to the UK government, and may become an integral part of the festival entry process. “The first event trials have been conducted in Austria and have been a great success,” says Veit-Ander Aichbichler, Co-Founder and CEO of testFRWD.

“As we are learning now, the virus will not disappear... so we anticipate that testing will become a part of travelling, going to an event or attending mass gatherings for years to come,” he continues. “However, those checks need to be convenient and cost-effective. identyME is helping to achieve this goal to make sure we never see a lockdown again.”

With further delays to the last stage of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown announced last month, festival season still has a big question mark hanging over it at the moment. But with the success of the Events Research Programme and new innovations by companies like Swallow Events and testFRWD proving that events can be carried out safely and securely, it no longer feels like such a strange and distant memory.

Let’s Talk About Tests

Lateral Flow Test
A rapid antigen test, which detects proteins from the virus by using a swab of the nose and/or throat. These can be taken at home, with results in 30 minutes. They should only be taken if you don’t have COVID-19 symptoms.

PCR Test
PCR tests detect the virus’ ribonucleic acid (RNA), by using a swab of the nose and/or throat. They can be taken at home or at a test site, but have to be sent to a laboratory, with results taking one to three days. They should only be taken if you *do* have COVID-19 symptoms, have tested positive on a lateral flow test, or have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive.

LamPORE Test
LamPORE tests are used for local community testing in areas with high rates of COVID-19. They use either swab or saliva samples to detect the virus’ RNA and can be administered at mobile testing units, with results in 90 minutes, as well as an overall sensitivity of 99.57% and specificity of 99.4%. They can be used for people with or without symptoms.