Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 June.
“The world-leading events research programme has conducted 14 pilot events across two phases since April. The findings from these events will inform decisions around the safe removal of social distancing at step 4 of the road map. We committed to publishing the final report ahead of step 4 of the road map, and that is what we will do. The report will cover key findings and the operational approach of the research programme. The events research programme has studied some highly complex questions. The guidance for the sector that comes out of this work will, however, be practical, clear and simply set out.
Following the delay to step 4, the Government will now run a third phase of the events research programme. This phase will gather more data, consolidating our evidence base and helping in our aim of getting spectators back to live events in greater numbers. Phase 3 will include trialling the practical use of Covid certification at a range of events, alongside other mitigations. Some of these pilot events will be permitted at full capacity, providing visitors demonstrate their Covid status. The men’s and women’s finals at Wimbledon, for example, will be played with Centre Court at full capacity, and those matches will be the first major outdoor sporting events held at full capacity in the UK since the start of the pandemic. The events research programme is continuing live discussions with a number of theatres and cultural and business event organisers about their inclusion in the programme, which would see events taking place with larger capacities.
I am sure that the House recognises how vital this research is in supporting the reopening of venues and sectors that we and our constituents are so passionate about. However, it is important to recognise that public safety is the main priority. Although we are not yet in a position to publish the full report, I assure the House that post-event data is closely monitored and has not shown any evidence of the events causing outbreaks. If the events had, we would have communicated that information urgently. As the Prime Minister has stressed, the road map is driven by the data, not target dates.
Like everybody present, I know how important it is for spectators to return to live events in greater numbers. We are hopeful that the events research programme will enable us to work with the experts and the events sectors to allow reopening as planned in step 4 of the road map.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Answer on the events research programme, which shows the devastating impact that Covid restrictions are having on events programmes and the hospitality sector. Public health and personal security must remain as priorities, but this is not helped by the lack of transparency surrounding the publication of the ERP findings. Will the Minister commit to the full disclosure of the report and what it means for the road map? Will she also commit to tackling some of the current ridiculous inconsistencies applied to events that enable Wimbledon, race meetings and Euro 2020 matches to have spectators but prevent Brighton Consort choir even holding rehearsals?
The Government have always said that we will publish the findings of the events research programme ahead of step 4 of the road map, and we are committed to that. I assure the noble Lord that the results will be published very soon. In relation to inconsistency, I think that we can all understand the difference between rigorously set up and implemented pilots to test the impact of larger crowds coming together and the wider lifting of lockdown, and how one will inform the other.
My Lords, will the Minister undertake to look at how information is disseminated on this? The fact that there have been leaks before it has come out officially does not help anything. Also, can the Minister comment on the position of the Government underwriting insurance for future events? At the moment, if it is thought that things might be extended, or possibly that there might be another lockdown, how can we plan for the future? This is totally strangling the events industry.
I share the noble Lord’s concern about leaks in this area. In relation to insurance, the Government are of course aware of wider concerns about securing indemnity insurance for live events. We are continuing to assess a range of options to provide further support to the sector in the public health context.
My Lords, I urge my noble friend to take back to the department the concerns I hear expressed time and again about the lack of transparency around data from the events research programme, which we are led to believe suggests that there are no serious risks of Covid during events. Even before the delta variant—I recognise that—events were not superspreaders in the way they would have been last year. These draconian restrictions on our everyday lives seem to most people to be difficult to justify in light of the current low levels of infection and, in particular, deaths, as well as the extensive success of our vaccine programme, on which I hugely congratulate the Government.
I hear my noble friend’s frustration on this, but there really is no lack of transparency. This is a very rigorous set of pilots. The complex data needs to be analysed, and I am sure my noble friend agrees with me that it would be really unhelpful to put it in the public domain until that has been completed.
My Lords, following repeated requests to see the full ERP 1 research protocols, a brief science statement was finally issued on 4 June. It says the ERP 1 will provide evidence on effectiveness of ventilation, organisation, venue design and attendee behaviour but will not
“generate any direct evidence based on transmission data on how … events might be done to mitigate risks of transmission”.
Does the Minister agree that this falls far short of sector expectations and the original aim, which GOV.UK still says is examination of the “risk of transmission”? Can she explain why the Government have not followed best-practice open science and released full protocols and findings to allow the valuable scrutiny of the wider research community?
I cannot judge other people’s opinion on this, but we have certainly been transparent, as the noble Baroness sets out clearly, in what is possible and achievable in these trials. We have been very clear that the purpose of these pilots is to release the data when it has been fully analysed, which I hope will be very shortly, so that organisations working in the live events area can plan and reopen as quickly and safely as possible.
My Lords, the Church of England has adopted a clear policy on encouraging people to be vaccinated. However, at the same time, like many organisations, we cater for a variety of people, some with strongly held ethical convictions and objections to the vaccine, covering issues from animal testing to the use of aborted foetal cells. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to uphold freedom of religion and belief and offer an alternative to vaccine certification for religious events?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the parliamentary choir. Research into disease transmission is obviously very important, and I am sure that the results will be helpful for future planning. However, common sense should not be ignored. Can the noble Baroness now answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley:
“is it not utterly ridiculous that shouting, chanting and drinking fans can congregate and hug each other”—
and be seen on television doing that—
“but a small, amateur, vaccinated and socially distanced choir cannot meet to rehearse?”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 18.]
My Lords, thanks to Politico this morning, we now know that the events research programme has internal polling which shows that, if face masks were to continue after 19 July, 28% of people will be less likely to attend an event; a ban on food and drink would mean that 43% of people would be less likely to attend an event; and only with mandatory Covid testing would 15% would be more likely to attend. In light of that data, what are the long-term implications for testing at such events?
I thank the noble Lord for his question. One of the things that we are seeking to understand better in the third phase of the events research pilots will be the use of testing and certification and how that may or may not be applied in future, although I stress that no decision has been taken on that.
My Lords, given the importance of the wedding industry in this country, which employs 400,000 people and accounting for £15 billion in annual revenue, why did the Government not see it necessary to have a wedding-specific ERP? Can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will embrace the wedding industry’s offer to use its unique experience and expertise in providing a reliable database of evidence that shows that it operates in a Covid-safe environment?
The events that were chosen for the events research programme were very carefully selected based on scientific advice for the data and the insights that they can provide. As the noble Lord is aware, we are limited in the number of events that can be included in the programme, but all learning will be shared with the all-important wedding sector, as he suggests.
My Lords, the events industry has been decimated by Covid and is now facing its second lost summer, which will prove terminal to many small local events providers and the independent contractors that serve them. I note my interest as proprietor of an open-air venue that hosts a variety of small events, including one that tried but failed to become an ERP pilot. It appears that only large events companies were granted pilots, while small ones—those least able to survive another fallow summer—were not. Will the Government be providing specific support and/or skills training to the many independent contractors facing a very bleak future? Otherwise, we will lose vital skills for good.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty.