The eyes of the world focused on Liverpool’s Bramley Moore Dock last weekend, as 6,000 people gathered for two nights of dance music as part of the Government’s Events Research Programme.

Circus Music and The Events Company UK organised two events – called Circus The First Dance – on April 30 and May 1, with Symphotech appointed to manage health and safety.

Symphotech supported the organising team from conception, ensuring a COVID-safe event. With the emphasis on the research and test event aspect of the shows, protocols had to meet the criteria required by the scientists and multiple stakeholders.

Eddy Grant, director of Symphotech, was project leader and produced a detailed and constantly-evolving risk analysis for the staff and the audience.

He explained: “When the roadmap out of lockdown was announced by the Government in February, I spoke with Sam Newson (The Events Company UK), Richard McGuinness (Circus Music) and Culture Liverpool, aware that DCMS were favouring Liverpool as a location. All were enthusiastic to ‘make events happen’. The ensuing months have been spent considering the additional challenges to working a normal gig. The almost daily shifting sands of the science meant we weren’t certain which elements the scientists were going to look at, with the additional protocols each brought into the frame adding to our planning.”

Speaking on site, Newson said: “Eddy has worked very closely with me in the weeks leading in to these shows. The science has been changing daily to trigger us figuring out what we had to do; not just for this weekend, but for the whole industry to be able to come back. We’ve been working hand-in-hand with Public Health England, DCMS, local health and licensing officials. All have been on site and scrutinising the details of what we’ve done and they are happy that we have delivered things correctly.

“It’s also about looking beyond this weekend to leave a legacy of protocols to create an event roadmap for others to reference and learn from. Only through collaboration with people across this incredible industry of creative, ‘can do’ professionals, can we produce a sustainable way of working with COVID into the future.

“It is the first COVID-safe dance event for 15 months – so it’s been a lot of pressure on Eddy and I to get it right. It’s a massive risk – not knowing what is going to happen with the COVID results post-event.

“But it has also been a special moment: It feels like we’re making history. I have picked a production team we have worked with for a long time: These are the best team in the world and it’s been the most amazing thing to see them all come back to work with beaming smiles.”

Newson added: “I’ve worked with Symphotech for seven years so I trust Eddy implicitly. We have been so tight in planning and delivering this with their team on site. He holds his corner well and we’ve both been learning the science developments on a daily basis and updating plans.”

The audience was drawn exclusively from the city of Liverpool – and they were aware they were talking part in a scientific test. Staff and media came from further afield. All had to submit a negative COVID test 24 hours prior to coming on site. The audience attended a local test centre to do a lateral flow test, and the result, sent via their NHS App, was linked to their digital ticket. Staff carried out PCR tests and everyone was asked to submit another test result five days after the event to assess the impact of potential spread.

Grant continued: “The Events Company UK has always embraced new technology. To make a better, secure, experience for the audience they integrated their ticketing system with NHS app and the cashless payment system.

“The home lateral flow test is so simple to self-administer: If that’s what it’s going to take to get gigs back on then, I’m all for it.”

Symphotech

Will Hodgson, director of Symphotech, and Nicola O’Boyle, project manager, worked alongside Grant.

Hodgson said: “This has been a special weekend of shows for so many reasons, being the first music event with no social distancing or facemasks. I have loved seeing the smiles on faces as they have come in and clearly been soooo excited to be finally coming to a live gig. This was a young, fresh audience, who hadn’t been to a gig for 15 months – if ever! It felt like an ‘end of year prom’ having being locked up for so long.”

There will be some incisive debriefing of the First Dance event and the neighbouring Sefton Park outdoor gig with the Blossoms held the following day, as to whether, and how, live music and nightclub events can return.

Newson explained some of the future economic implications: “Arts Council Funding allowed us to produce this event to the high standard we’d expect with all the additional requirements for COVID. We have used more freelancers to allow double crews, meaning we’ve had more than 400 staff on this test event.

“We’ve had different crews for load-in/event/load-out days, four times as many dressing rooms with enhanced cleaning, a larger press room, 200 hand sanitisers, added screens to bars, fogging overnight, in addition to a time-consuming planning process. All of these things cost money and will affect the economics of any future event.

“I expect there to be a big onus on our duty of care to look after our professional event staff, so a lot of these elements were about staff safety.”

Grant concluded: “We’re very proud to have played our part in these test events and hope that they will be instrumental in bringing back live events, in a safe manner, very soon.”