An independent report, commissioned by parkrun, states that there is an exceptionally low risk of COVID transmission at outdoor sporting events.
Utilising data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) from March 2021, looking at the prevalence of the virus, alongside antibody levels within the population, the study finds that, on average, were parkruns to have been open in March this year, at 30 per cent of events there would not have been be an infectious person present, and at events where an infectious person did participate, there would have been an average R value of only 0.057.
The study (available to read in full here) was developed by Professor Clive Beggs at Queen Mary University of London. He is an expert in the transmission and control of infectious disease, and an advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care.
Professor Beggs ran a computer model through 10,000 simulations of an average 263-person parkrun event, using worst-reasonable-case estimates for number and duration of human contacts, which resulted in only 0.015 per cent of runners potentially acquiring a COVID-19 infection.
With continued rapid roll-out of vaccines across the UK, alongside decreased levels of infection, parkrun events should already be even safer than the model predicts, and safer again by the time parkrun returns across England in June.
Professor Beggs said: “Our analysis was undertaken using COVID-19 prevalence levels for March 2021, and the results revealed that parkrun events are likely to be very safe. This finding appears to be supported by the evidence from the various road races that have been held around the world during the pandemic, which have been characterised by a noticeable lack of infectious outbreaks. Based on this, it would seem to me that running events are probably already safe in the UK, and getting safer every day as prevalence falls and the vaccine rollout continues.”
Professor Dame Sally Davies, former chief medical officer for England, and current master of Trinity College, Cambridge University said: “I welcome this report by Professor Clive Beggs, which is a remarkable and reassuring step forward in our understanding of outdoor transmission of COVID-19. parkrun communities should take confidence from the findings that walking, running, jogging or volunteering at parkrun is likely to be very safe.
“Now, more than ever, we need parkrun to improve our nation’s public health and happiness. Our wellbeing, physical health and mental health depend on us being active and being together, in line with the government’s guidelines and parkrun’s COVID-19 Framework.”
The study also suggests that, contrary to popular belief, the risk of infection is even lower at the start line of events like parkrun, than during the event itself. This seems primarily due to the significantly lower breathing rate (pulmonary ventilation rate) of participants prior to the event compared to when running, alongside the relatively short time period participants are gathered together.
In fact, over the 10,000 simulations of the model, Professor Beggs concluded that for the 2.6 million parkrun participants simulated, only one infection would occur on the startline.
This finding suggests that measures such as wave or staggered starts are unnecessary, especially when mitigations that minimise the amount of time participants are gathered together are introduced (one of the measures adopted by parkrun in their operational COVID-19 Framework).
In a further revelation, the paper calls into question the validity of a previous high profile wind tunnel study which demonstrated that particles of the virus could be spread behind runners, potentially posing a significant risk of infection to those running directly behind.
In his report, Professor Beggs sets out how the pre-print study did not simulate real-life conditions and did not take into account major factors such as the average breeze or cross winds, or the turbulence created by the changing position of runners, and the fact that runners are not static and change direction frequently: by definition they are moving thus constantly generating turbulence and changes in airflow.
Consequently, Beggs argues the previous study represented an unrealistic worst-case scenario and when considering a real-life parkrun event, concluded that the risks will be much lower.
Nick Pearson chief executive officer of parkrun said: “Over the past 13 months, our understanding of the virus has improved significantly with every academic paper, scientific study, and expert report. We know far more about Coronavirus now than we did last year, and we should use that knowledge to make appropriate fact-based decisions about how and when we return to normal life.
“We asked Professor Beggs to use only very conservative numbers for his modelling, to try and create a worse-reasonable-case scenario. And it is clear that, even with this cautious approach, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 at an outdoor event like parkrun is vanishingly small.
“I believe the implications of this report are huge for how we view the risks associated with running events and outdoor sport in general. The chances of any infection at all taking place at organised, risk assessed, outdoor events are in fact minimal, even with up to a few thousand participants. We must use data and evidence to inform decision making, and understand that a growing body of evidence does now exist around outdoor sports events such as parkrun, which clearly demonstrates that these events are safe.
“The benefits, particularly now, of getting active, together, far outweigh the close-to-zero risk of virus transmission in outdoor settings. As we look toward the summer, it is vital that we do everything we can to welcome back parkrun events, and get the nation back on its feet, positively impacting the health and happiness of ourselves, our friends, our family, and those around us.”