The Government has confirmed the creation of an Events Research Programme, which will include a series of pilot events that will use “enhanced” testing procedures, and other measures, to determine whether social distancing restrictions can be lifted when events return.

The announcement featured within the Government’s COVID-19 Response document, published yesterday (February 22) as the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s roadmap to cautiously ease lockdown restrictions in England.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have been working with representatives from industry  to explore when and how events with larger crowd sizes, less social distancing or in settings where transmission is more likely (for example, indoors), will be able to return safely.

From April, the Events Research Programme will run pilots with large crowd sizes and reduced social distancing to evaluate the outcomes.

The Government will bring the findings from across different sectors and different settings to determine a consistent approach to lifting restrictions on these events.

Depending on the outcome of this work, the Government hopes to be able to lift restrictions on these events and sectors as part of the Government’s roadmap, which could see large events from June 21.

The roadmap outlines four steps for easing restrictions. Before proceeding to the next step, the Government will examine the data to assess the impact of previous steps.

There will be a minimum of five weeks between each step: four weeks for the data to reflect changes in restrictions; followed by seven days’ notice of the restrictions to be eased.

Drive-in events/cinemas could be permitted from April 12. From May 17, outdoor cinemas and outdoor theatres could reopen and larger performances and sporting events could take place. Controlled indoor events of up to 1,000 people or 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is lower, will be permitted, as will outdoor events with a capacity of either 50 per cent or 4,000 people, whichever is lower. The Government will also make a special provision for large, outdoor, seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed, allowing up to 10,000 people or 25 per cent of total seated capacity, whichever is lower.

Finally, from June 21, it is hoped that restrictions will be lifted on large events.

Paul Reed, CEO of the AIF, welcomed the news. He said: “We welcome the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of lockdown, presented to the House Of Commons, and are optimistic that many of our member festivals may be able to go ahead in some capacity later on this year. There are still, however, some urgent points of clarity that need to be made around the exact requirements that festival organisers will need to meet, in particular around testing and COVID certification. We look forward to engaging closely with Government on the Events Research Programme and again stress that we are rapidly approaching the decision cut off point for the vast majority of festivals at the end of March. If a complete picture is not given by this time, it will be too late for many to stage events later in the year.

“We also appreciate that this is a best case scenario and that the Government reserves the right to delay the easing of lockdown restrictions if the data dictates. Festival organisers only want to return when it is safe to do so but, if the easing of restrictions does lose momentum and events are suddenly cancelled as a result, it is vital that our sector receives swift and targeted Government support to compensate. In addition, Government intervention on insurance and VAT remain critical.”

Steve Heap, general secretary of the AFO, commented: “The Prime Minister set out his road map for ending the lockdown. Of course, he didn’t say that festivals and big events could start again, but there was the tiniest glimmer of hope in his statement.

“He made quick reference to events but said the word’ testing’ on several occasions.
“The festival industry as we know it cannot handle testing at the gate of the event. That would cause chaos and local concerns. Testing in advance of either ticket purchase or arrival at the site leads directly to a vaccine/health passport, which the PM has rejected on many occasions.
“The AFO would welcome a U-turn and the introduction of a clear proof of vaccination and/or negative test.

“The PM did not give us a start date, which is no surprise, as he was always going to focus on science advice and the data but there were hints and pointers towards the opening of sport and events that could include festivals in the latter parts of summer.”

He continued: “For now, we will be continuing the drive to get support for the festival industry. AFO has joined with many others in the festival and music world to demand that the reduction to five per cent for VAT on ticket sales be extended to at least the end of 2021 and preferably for a three-season period.

“In addition, we ask that the Chancellor looks very closely at the number of event industry workers that have had no pay whatsoever for the last 12 months, and considers continuing furlough making a cash support fund available to roadies, techies, lampies etc. throughout our festival industry.

“And thirdly, that a decision is made by the end of March to financially underwrite an insurance scheme against pandemic losses, giving the festival industry the opportunity to reopen knowing that, should a bad situation arise again, we will have some funding from an insurance scheme in support of our £40 billion industry with its 85,000 jobs.”

Tom Clements, president of NOEA, said: “We’ve worked very hard with the Government to get a ‘start date’ for the events industry and, while it has been far too long in coming, we now have June 21. Unfortunately though, this is still bad news for many of our members; June is a key month for the events industry, and those organising events before then will have to wait another year for much needed income. Equally, there is still a lack of clarity around social distancing, mask wearing and the results of the Event Research Programme, which will have an affect on the industry’s confidence in planning meetings. We’re also sceptical about the lack of notice if any of these dates are to shift, ours is not an industry that can shift quickly and this will mean many events will be more cautious in their planning. This means at best, we could be operating at 50 per cent of our usual capacities.

“Therefore, what is imperative is that we continue to get the support we need right up to June 21 and well beyond. Equally, repayment of debts and loans will need to be deferred until the end of the year and into 2022. We need this support in place now if the industry is to be allowed to get back on its feet again and begin to recover in 2022.”