“It was my passion, my identity and, to be honest, my life.” Before 2020, Richard’s (whose name has been changed to conserve his anonymity) life revolved around live music. As a 21-year-old student from Leeds, nine weekends out of ten you would find him in a dingy basement venue, absorbing the vibrant music scene the city has to offer. That was all but stripped away from him by the COVID-19 pandemic. Richard also has a severe form of asthma, which makes him particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of respiratory illnesses like COVID. For the last 18 months or so he’s been in a consistent state of vigilance and now, with a successful vaccine roll-out across the country, he’s relieved (but hesitant) to return to the life he led in 2019.
“It felt like a massive weight off my chest; after everything the nation has been through it was nice to find out that the British government were finally getting their act together,” he noted, referring to what he believed to be successful measures being implemented to help curb the spread of COVID-19: mask mandates, social-distancing in public spaces, the rule of six. Those implementations were short-lived, however. On 19 July 2021, the day large swathes of the British public deemed ‘Freedom Day’, an idea largely perpetuated by the tabloid press, Richard and many other immune-compromised citizens were left with a choice. Does he continue to self-isolate with no end date in sight? Or does he cautiously begin to return to life as normal?
Richard, understandably, chose the latter. Part of this decision was guided by the fact that the live music industry, particularly UK festivals, were advertising supposedly strict measures to keep their customers safe and minimise the threat of becoming a super-spreader event. With these measures in mind, Richard booked a day ticket to All Points East Festival, London. “I knew there was a risk involved but the festival had advertised that they require either proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test to enter the event. I was led to believe the risk would be minimised,” he noted.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Indeed, All Points East did supposedly have the staff in place to check valid COVID-19 passes but the system, somewhere along the line, failed. Screen Shot has reached out to a number of sources, all of who were in attendance at festivals across the UK, and who have all reported that the COVID-19 measures in place were not up to the standard advertised.
Sam Tabahriti, a freelance journalist and reporter for the iNews, explained how the “checks weren’t rigorous at all. They didn’t scan my pass or anything and I didn’t have a bag, so I’m not sure whether they’ve probably checked that either.” Tabahriti continued, recalling his experience entering the All Points East Festival on Friday 27 August 2021, “In all honesty, anyone could have gone in without their COVID pass.”
Hannah Allaway from Manchester, who was another attendee at All Point East Festival, voiced her concern for the lack of actual scans the staff made on participants’ COVID-19 passes. She attended the festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday: each day progressively getting more relaxed on measures than the last. “They just didn’t scan your pass at all. It was a quick glance at the very most.”
“On Friday, at least there were somewhat orderly queues waiting to the point where COVID passes were scanned. However, on Saturday and Sunday, the area where they’d check passes and tickets was rammed. I’m surprised I didn’t catch COVID, to be honest,” Allaway continued.
Countless others indicated how the festival was inadequate in implementing COVID-19 checks. Another witness who attended All Points East on Saturday reported seeing an individual taking her test in the queue, surrounded by people, just minutes before heading to the event. However, perhaps more alarmingly, reports of flawed checks were not just limited to All Points East.
An attendee at Reading Festival explained that “they’d only glance at your pass—not scanning it or anything. It would’ve been easy just to use a screenshot from the internet of someone else’s test results. It makes you wonder how many people with COVID-19 would’ve just slipped through without being pulled up.”
Sophie Bird, music and entertainment at FLAVOURMAG gave a similar story, “The checks were too easy, in my opinion. Lateral flow tests are easy to fake as you put in the result yourself.” She argued that requiring a PCR test “definitely would’ve been safer” and that festivals should’ve offered refunds for people who tested positive to “give them a reason not to infect others.”
Ironically, Bird actually caught COVID-19 at Reading Festival. However, whether this was directly due to the festival’s alleged negligence in enforcing rigid COVID-19 checks is up for debate. She mentioned how she went to Slam Dunk Festival the week after while unknowingly carrying the disease. Her lateral flow tests showed that she was negative leading up to the event but even then Slam Dunk failed to scan her pass. “[At] Slam Dunk [South], it was just a glance and no proper checks [were done].”
The negligence reported by the witnesses who reached out to Screen Shot paints a grim reality. In essence, on the face of it at least, it seems that festivals falsely advertised that a valid COVID-19 pass—which proves you’re either double vaccinated, have tested negative on a lateral flow or had a PCR that notes you’ve recovered from COVID-19 in the last 180 days—would be required for entry.
Screen Shot’s findings have shown otherwise. Festivals across the UK have failed to implement such safety measures. Arguably, this has portrayed a false sense of security for those, like Richard, who may have been immune-compromised and more vulnerable to the disease. But who’s to blame? The answer to that question is more complex and multifaceted.
A representative from All Points East Festival made an important point: there wasn’t actually any government policy put on enforcing COVID-19 regulations after ‘Freedom Day’ in the first place. “The industry took upon itself to do a thing that no other industry has,” our source argued, highlighting how COVID-19 passes aren’t required for entering other places like pubs, restaurants or sports games. “It’s holding ourselves to a higher standard than any other sector.” Indeed, music festivals aren’t the police—without the correct written policy put in place to protect vulnerable adults, they have no way of enforcing such measures anyway.
It’s no doubt that the live events and arts sector has taken a hammering during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the detrimental impact on the live music industry has only been perpetuated by poor and slow government messaging. A representative from All Points East continued, “The reasons why a lot of events couldn’t go ahead this year, even at a time when they hypothetically were allowed, was because of poor messaging from the government. Organisers couldn’t take the financial risk because of their insurance schemes.”
This is a theme that seems to have plagued the industry for the last year and a half. Even when the ideas of rapid testing and COVID-19 passports were announced to aid live events returning this year, a large majority of industry professionals was kept in the dark. As a report by Mixmag indicates, even owners of large events were only told of the plans for reopening the country when it was broadcasted to the wider public.
And this, unsurprisingly, is the same for the COVID-19 pass scheme. An individual working in the UK festivals industry, who wished to remain anonymous, shared how allegedly “the scanning aspect of the NHS app was not operational in time for many festivals to implement the process.” Although it is difficult to verify this allegation, if considered true, it would mean that the government, which had been responsible for creating an app able to verify an individual’s COVID-19 status in time to ensure festivals were safe, simply failed to do so.
Nick Morgan, CEO of We Are The Fair—a large-scale event and festival production company—highlighted how there was no extra support from the government to help festivals implement stringent COVID-19 checks. “We had a good relationship with Public Health England but all costs were all on us. Shows are costing between 23 to 27 per cent more, so that has been a concern,” he noted.
Some may argue that individuals like Richard should stay away from live events until the risk has subsided. Although it’s easy to say that as a healthy bodied individual. For most immune-compromised people, it’s not clear when (or if) the risk will subside. The question of whether they should take the risk is their choice—and their choice alone. However, it’s crucial that festival organisers do everything in their power to protect them—especially if they’ve advertised such safety measures prior to the day.
By no means should this investigation undermine the importance of live music and the hardship the industry has faced over these troubling times. However, when vulnerable attendees are lulled into a false sense of security, through promises of stringent COVID-19 checks, only for them to be implemented inadequately on the day, it’s a cause for concern. Morgan stressed the importance of “communications in advance.” And for that to happen, the government and festivals must work together to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable.
Slam Dunk Festival and Festival Republic (organisers of Reading Festival) declined to comment on this investigation.