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Are vaccine passports inevitable at events? The Silverstone race weekend offered an insight into the practice in action

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author, on behalf of the members of the Sports Ground and Events Group committee, and do not necessarily represent the views of IOSH.

A crowd can turn ugly, violent or panic within a moment, but Covid cannot spontaneously appear if you do not let it in past the gate.

Last weekend a full capacity crowd of 140,000 fans gathered to watch the British Grand Prix which was the culmination of the three-day Silverstone F1 race weekend and did so with no sign of any Covid restrictions inside the event. Many of the visitors camped on site for the whole three days and enjoyed the evening events and socialising as well as the racing. Subsequent media and social media commentators appear to be divided as to whether this should be a celebration of the success of the UK vaccination program or whether it should be seen as an act of folly and a danger to public health. The government picked this event to be a pilot under the Event Research Project no doubt after fierce lobbying by the sport’s governing body, the FIA. In fairness to the FIA, they have rigorously enforced Covid rules for the racing aspect globally which has been a widely acknowledged success. As a pilot there will be an official report but whatever the motivations for permitting a full capacity crowd, it is worth considering how the risk aspects of this event stack up as it is more than likely that these considerations will be relevant and necessary at events for months or years to come.

We have become accustomed to reduced capacity at events and hospitality to the point where few now question it. The problem is that while elite sports like this appear to be ‘rich’ these government show case pilot events are not representative or themselves viable in the long term unless they are able to return to full capacity. That applies to every kind of event from F1 down to a bar owner trying to run a jazz night. Who would begrudge the food concessions their long queues over the weekend, which were very much in evidence, after these businesses have lost so much? What was not in evidence, of course was the thousands of event concessions and similar businesses that have gone bust in the meantime. This is not just about elite sports but also the thousands of small businesses that depend on it and all those who earn a living from it whether it be an engineer in the pits or a student selling merchandise to help fund themselves through university. This point needs to be part of the argument. Health and safety law allows us to balance risk against cost or, in this case, the opportunity cost of not allowing legitimate event businesses to trade to their full capacity.

The first important point is that all the 140,000 visitors wanted to be there and for many it is an annual pilgrimage saved up for over the year. For the stewards and hospitality workers on the visitor side it is temporary work so again there is an element of choice in deciding to work at the event. Those under the auspices of the FIA (the racing element) were governed by much stricter and entirely separate rules. No one there was under any illusions about the terms of their participation or the potential risks.

Silverstone took a ‘proactive’ approach to Covid control. Tickets were sold on the condition that full vaccination or evidence of a negative test for those over 11 years old were a condition of entry. Interestingly, the NHS vaccination card (rather than the App certificate) did not suffice and those who tried to use this were directed to leave the queue and take a lateral flow test (LFT). There are no trains to Silverstone; everyone drives. The vaccination and test checks were mostly done off site, for example, at the park and ride facilities. Wrist bands were issued to those checked. Testing for Covid and then for tickets sequentially meant that queues were no longer than they would be anyway. Throwing a protective ring around the event meant that once inside it was like walking into a parallel universe where Covid never happened. There was not a mask in sight, no signs, no social distancing just a few bins of free hand sanitizer on entry which were quickly emptied. Whilst it took a few moments to get used to, it was clear that no one was the least bit bothered. Anyone could choose to wear a mask, but none were in evidence. The logic is clear. If everyone is vaccinated or tested, then there is very little chance of the virus entering the event area in the first place so everyone feels safe. As a consequence, the atmosphere was happy and relaxed. A crowd can turn ugly, violent or panic within a moment, but Covid cannot spontaneously appear if you do not let it in past the gate.

F1 fans are not all petrol head maniacs, careless of risk and nonchalant about the rules. True followers care very much about rules. Non F1 fans might be surprised by the crowd profile which it would be accurate to describe as family groups of all ages, some with disabilities, albeit with a large subgroup of ‘dads and lads’. Ticket prices ranged from £100 for general access for a day without a grandstand seat, to £600 for the best seats which still got you nowhere near any kind of fancy hospitality. These were people who clearly understood the risks and made a very conscious decision for themselves to attend. Given the price tag most were well within the current fully vaccinated population. For this year at least, there was the added risk suppressor of the ‘pingdemic’. Anyone with several hundred pounds of investment in a ticket would be naturally careful about mixing in the days leading up to the event for fear of being ‘pinged’. Many actually self-isolated before the event to make sure of not getting caught out. The same will be true for many types of events this summer.

The risk also needs to be put into context of the style of the event. This was primarily an outdoor summer event where the risk of transmission was very low which most people understand. Whilst it cannot be relied upon in the UK, the UV in the summer sunlight will destroy the virus as it does for many pathogenic organisms. The race days were crowded, but Silverstone has plenty of room and no one needed to be bunched together as would be found in a mosh pit at a festival. If you wanted to get close the action, then social distancing was not possible but there was plenty of space for anyone that wanted it. Much has been made of the number of spectators at this and other events. At most events, especially seated events, visitors attend in pairs or larger groups. There were only three track events where the stands were packed. For the father and son combo or young couple (the most prevalent visitor combo) each probably sat next to or in front of no more than half a dozen different people for the whole weekend all of it in open stands. The total number of visitors in this context is almost irrelevant, therefore. Close contact in crowds was fleeting and it was observable in queues that people seem to have developed the habit of giving others a bit more space.

The preventative approach of throwing a vaccination/test ring around the event is not fool proof. Those who are vaccinated can catch and pass on Covid although it is a fraction of the risk of the unvaccinated and studies have shown that where this is the case, the infected person does not become seriously ill. There was singing (far too many renditions of Sweet Caroline!) and a great deal of shouting and cheering which can spread infection. The LFT can be cheated by simply reporting a negative test but not actually doing it. There is, then, a risk that unvaccinated and infected people can enter the event but who are they going to infect if everyone else they encounter is fully vaccinated? Yes, it is theoretically possible to pass it on but a fully vaccinated crowd has numerical herd immunity. In any case ‘zero Covid’ is never going to be the case in any public place for years to come and this is probably as close as it is reasonably practicable to achieve. The loophole of LFT’s is probably realistically only an issue up until the point where every adult has been offered a vaccine. After this point a full vaccination could well be the only way to gain entry for events like this as the UK government has indicated will be the requirement for night clubs, (though there is considerable political opposition to this). Assuming compliance with the Equality Act, venues and event organisers are, in any case, entitled to set their own conditions of entry. This was a sell-out event so why, in future, would the organiser take the risk when excluding the non-vaccinated will only serve to increase the attraction to the vast majority who are vaccinated? Normally packed night clubs will surely do the same if the alternative risks unwelcome attention from the authorities. Night club owners know that to sell alcohol to the underaged risks their licence and by the same token young adults readily accept the need to prove their age to access the club or the bar. By the same logic they will readily accept vaccine passports and so will the rest of the population that wish to attend events.

This appears to be the inescapable direction of travel at least for events in the UK. There is a very valid argument that this is a step too far along the road to a state of requiring ID cards, a notion that was rejected by a referendum held by the Cameron government a few years ago. How long before a vaccination will be condition to acquire a driver’s licence or for that matter access to a GP surgery? By these means a government does not need to mandate vaccination by law, it merely needs to severely restrict those that refuse it. If it sounds ridiculous, consider explaining to your younger self last year that within a year a fully-vaccinated healthy person could be ‘pinged’ by their neighbour they have not spoken to in weeks through an adjoining wall in their house and have to self-isolate even if they test negative. The ‘pingdemic’ is a Kafkaesque absurdity that will pass but it shows how far we have come in the arbitrary restriction of liberties. There will have to be exceptions to vaccine passports