Tens of thousands of revellers will descend on late summer music festivals across Britain this weekend, armed with a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination in an effort to curb rising infections.
Reading and Leeds, twin events that are a rite of passage for post-exam teenagers, will be two of the biggest since the government removed restrictions in July following a rapid vaccine rollout. Reading had a capacity of 105,000 in 2019.
With Monday a public holiday in England, other large gatherings are being staged across the country, including the 70,000-strong Creamfields event in northwest England. The traditional Notting Hill Carnival in London has however been cancelled again.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said this month that a successful hosting of the British Grand Prix and Wimbledon tennis tournament last month showed mass events could be held safely, but that caution was needed in crowded settings.
However, many health experts remain concerned that people will lose their inhibitions in the excitement, causing a spike in cases.
Soccer matches in the Euro 2020 tournament and a surfing festival in Cornwall have already led to significant outbreaks in one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.
Cornwall Council has said 4,700 cases could be linked to the Boardmasters festival, which attracted about 50,000 people to the small seaside town of Newquay this month.
Meradin Peachey, director of public health for the area that covers Reading to the west of London, said a spike was a concern given that older teenagers were offered vaccines only this month.
“Sixteen, seventeen year olds are the main groups that are going to be there and they’re not covered yet,” she told BBC News. “We are trying to ask people to show proof of a lateral flow test before you even get anywhere near the gates.”
British infections have started to rise again, with about 34,000 cases and around 100 deaths being reported per day in the last week. But admissions to hospital remain well below previous peaks of the pandemic.
‘UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL’
Scientists believe the trigger points for spreading the virus are public transport and shared cars to get to events as outdoor gatherings themselves, even with large numbers, can be relatively risk free.
Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said mixing at festivals was a risk when the rate of infection was about 25 times higher than a year ago thanks to the Delta variant.
“I think there’s a greater capacity for people to be more intimate with one another, up close and personal, than in regimented seating you’ll see somewhere like the Grand Prix,” he said, referring to the Formula One race.
With the music industry desperate to start touring again, festival organisers say the need for a negative test or vaccine will prevent cases from surging.
Pop-up vaccination clinics will be on site at the Reading and Leeds festivals headlined by UK rapper Stormzy, but no one under the influence of drink or drugs will be inoculated, health organisers said.