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Will rapid testing really save UK nightlife? Mixmag investigates

The government says rapid testing will help its plan for nightclubs to reopen from June 21, but how will it work and what are the obstacles?

  • Jack Ramage
  • 26 February 2021

“It’s like picking up a pile of sand in your hands and trying to hold on to it over a day. Grain by grain - it’s trickling away. It’s like seeing your life disappear before your eyes,” says Tom Caulker, founder of the World Headquarters nightclub in Newcastle, who has committed 30 years of his life to the events industry. Over the past year, he’s watched his business crumble — an experience shared by many across the country.

The nightlife industry is on the brink of “extinction”, according to a recent survey by the NTIA and All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Night-Time Economy, which was set up to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on UK nightlife. It surveyed 20,000 consumers, employers, employees, and freelancers in the sector, and its reported findings were stark. In the second half of 2020, business in the night-time economy traded on average at 28 per cent of their annualised pre-COVID turnover, with almost 40 per cent of the night-time economy workforce being made redundant and 85 per cent of people working in nightlife considering leaving the industry.

Last week, Boris Johnson finally said the word many in the events industry have been waiting almost a year for - nightclubs. Describing the industry as the “toughest nut to crack” amid plans for easing lockdown restrictions, he suggested rapid testing could be used to facilitate the return of clubbing, which the government’s roadmap to reopening the economy is aiming to allow from June 21. But what will this look like?

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Experts have indicated recent developments in coronavirus testing technology could be a saviour for the industry - enabling clubs to return with some sense of normality. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Billy Quilty, an expert in infectious disease modelling and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said, “the priority now is getting cases down as low or as close to zero as possible, which will reduce the risk of all activities. This is critical - the fewer people in the community who have COVID, the lower the risk of catching it in a club, or anywhere else for that matter.”

We all want a return to the booming bass, sticky floors and packed smoking areas. However, the government treads a fine line between reviving the nightlife industry and risking superspreading events, akin to outbreaks linked to nightclubs in South Korea last May. Quilty continues, “tests on the door, despite the logistical hurdles, are likely to become part of a night out for the foreseeable future.”

“These tests work by detecting live viruses, and while not perfect, have been shown to detect the majority of people with viral loads high enough to infect others. Where they’re less good is detecting someone very early on in their infection - but these people are also very unlikely to infect others at this stage of infection,” he added.

Martin Page, director of Motion Events in Bristol, expressed optimism over the accuracy of new rapid flow testing technology, saying: “We have been inundated with offers from companies ready to facilitate rapid testing for us.”

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Another cause for optimism is a Yorkshire biotech firm recently developing a lateral flow test that boasts higher accuracy, a sensitivity of 96.7 per cent on cases with high viral load, than American devices previously imported by the government.

These tests also work much faster, reported to develop results in between five and ten minutes. The rapidly evolving advances in technology could mean Boris Johnson's 'Operation Moonshot’ - a plan to reopen large swathes of the hospitality sector - is suddenly viable.

Nick Morgan, a large-scale events producer and CEO of We Are The Fair, emphasised that we are at a stage where mass, rapid testing schemes are feasible. He highlighted how the mass asymptomatic rapid testing scheme in Liverpool, which dramatically lowered cases, illustrates how testing can be done nationwide within the coming months.

Unfortunately, having to implement a mass testing procedure for every nightclub will mean we may not be going back to the spontaneous, last-minute raves that we cherish for some time. Despite making the public reference to rapid testing last week, there has been a lack of communication between the government and club owners about the practicalities.

Luke Laws, Operation Manager at fabric, notes there has been conflicting information circling about how best managers should reopen their venues: “I’ve zoned out until I know what the rules are - everyone's saying different things. The first talk about nightclubs being open was that recent announcement to the public.”

This raises serious problems for the industry, which is not something that can be switched 'off and on’. It requires months of prior planning to organise events. As Tom Caulker from World Headquarters, Newcastle, explains: “a lot of his logistical problems have come from a lack of information [from the government] - information that’s been given at the very last minute.”

Nick Morgan addresses the additional costs reopening will bring and myth that clubs run on high-profit margins. “We run on a very slim margin. It's going to be more expensive this year to produce shows - for nightclubs to operate they’ll need more staff and sanitation. These are some of the many extra costs, I think sometimes people don't make that connection.”

Testing companies like Swallow Events say they’d be able to provide tests for “as cheap as £5.50 per test”. So who will pay for the extra cost of testing? Martin Page from Motion Bristol, says that “ultimately the cost will be apportioned to the end-user - the customer.”

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Alongside rising ticket prices, there are also logistical challenges of how to test customers before they enter the club. Even if, with heightened security, venue managers were able to isolate club-goers and put a robust testing situation in place. How does the security escort a club member away safely?

Swallow Events advised that people would follow the law in the country at the time - which is likely to go home straight-away and isolate. But reasoning with drunk and angry customers can be challenging at the best of times - let alone when they are contagious with a potentially deadly disease.

Perhaps a more effective method would be to administer remote testing. As Michel Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) suggests, the solution may be “home testing kits, which we know will be very soon available through general retail, or council-led mass testing systems. I do think in society, testing will just be part of our regime.”

Kill endorses remote testing as it takes the pressure off individual venues to implement their testing procedures. He said, “testing onsite has huge challenges. We’re edging towards remote testing - getting people to get tested at home, on video, with a QR code to validate that ticket. It means people won’t have to leave their home.”

However, home testing also has its flaws, Morgan argues: “the danger of testing at home is the reliance on the individual. Similar to if you’re drunk driving and asked to provide your test to prove you weren’t. People could manipulate a test to make sure it's negative.”

Ultimately, as highlighted by Kill, “there's a lot of work to do. The decision lies with the government. How confident they are against fraudulence and all those sorts of other things.” Despite the flaws in rapid testing, there are few alternatives that assure clubs open as safely as possible.

Quilty mentions that “masks in a club, as crap as it sounds, might be the way to go” in reducing transmission. However, reducing capacity will be unfeasible for many small businesses. Caulker from World Headquarters notes, “we need to run at full capacity to be economically viable - if we run at half capacity we’ll be losing more money than we make.”

Recent pilot schemes into new ventilation technology, like the one seen at London's 100 Club, designed to wipe out 99.9% of harmful airborne pathogens within buildings have shown promising results. Barcelona venues are currently testing systems and devices - such as track-and-trace, germicidal ultraviolet and ventilation technology, in the hopes of making indoor venues 100% COVID free and able to reopen without social distancing and mask wearing.

Read this next: Barcelona venues pilot “100% COVID-free system” for indoor nightlife

Recent discussion of vaccine passports opens up another can of worms in terms of ethical implications. Kill is strongly against the idea of vaccination passports, highlighting how it will be a breach of privacy and neglect those who are unable to be vaccinated. He said, “rapid testing is possibly the only way that we can do it. I'm not a fan of health passports in any way, shape, or form. I think it's too intrusive. What we've looked at is a less intrusive, intrusive approach, which is about choice.”

It’s a complex web to untangle: with many ethical and logistical implications to consider. Above all, everyone agrees the safety of others is most important. Caulker from World Headquarters says: “we’re all fighting the same pandemic. We don't want to open it and make people sick. The last thing I want to happen is to have someone die because they came to my club. I’d rather close the club then let that happen - you have to have perspective in this situation.”

If there is any positive to this situation, it’s highlighted the importance of the nightlife industry in wider society; not only for cultural value but also the local economies. MPs have urged the Prime Minister to support the sector to avoid ‘irreversible losses’ that would create ‘ghost towns’ across the country.

However, clubbing goes deeper than economics - it can be a source of identity and a lifeline for mental health; it facilitates a community and brings people together. As Spencer Wyatt from Egg London notes, “it’s about escapism. It's about enjoying yourself. This lockdown has tried a lot of people's patience and mental health. People are just wanting to go out - experience, listen to music, be with friends, wherever it may be.”

Boris Johnson has etched the date of June 21 into all our minds. A date we may be able to leave isolation, see our friends and feel the weight of a soundsystem through our bodies. To achieve this, there is still a daunting logistical mountain to climb, and more guidance and support from the government needed. But as the year anniversary of clubs closing approaches, the pathway to the light and thumping bass at the end of the tunnel is becoming clearer.

Jack Ramage is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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