Government to begin trials for the return of mass gatherings as lockdown eases

Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
·5-min read

The Government is to begin trials to enable the safe return of crowds to mass gatherings including Wembley football cup finals and indoor events such as comedy clubs as it prepares to launch its so-called “vaccine passport”.

People attending a range of sporting events, conferences and clubs will be tested both before and after in the next step towards the easing of restrictions in England.

Ministers said the scheme, which will include the FA Cup final at Wembley, will be used to gather scientific evidence on how venues can reopen without the need for social distancing.

However the move is likely to prove controversial with many MPs deeply concerned about the implications for civil liberties of requiring people to prove whether they are clear of the disease in order to attend certain events.

More than 40 Tories have signed a letter publicly opposing the use of vaccine passports in a campaign which has brought together ex-Conservative and Labour leaders Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who has led the task force responsible for drawing up the plans, acknowledged it raised “a host of practical and ethical questions” which needed to be resolved before there could any wider rollout.

However he said that it was essential that the Government took the lead, otherwise venues and other businesses would simply begin setting up their own certification schemes.

“These questions aren’t easy to resolve but I don’t think we can duck them,” he said in an article for The Sunday Telegraph.

“Unless the Government takes a lead we risk others establishing the rules of the road.”

The first trial is due to take place on April 16 at the Hot Water Comedy Club in Liverpool with an audience of 300 to be followed two days later by the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley with a crowd of 4,000.

Other events where the scheme is to be tested include the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, running from April 17 to May 3, and a mass participation run at Hatfield House on April 24 and 25.

The pilots will culminate with the FA Cup final on May 15, again at Wembley but this time with a crowd of 21,000.

People attending the trials will have to adhere to an agreed code of behaviour when they purchase a ticket and to take a Covid test both before and after the event.

They will be required to follow existing Government guidance, including wearing face coverings, and to provide contact details of everyone in their group for NHS Test and Trace.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “By piloting a range of measures to reduce transmission, we can gather vital scientific evidence to inform our plans for allowing events in the future.”

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

At the same time the Government is working on the development of a “Covid status certification” scheme, the so-called “vaccine passport”.

Ministers have said that it could involve the use of the NHS app, although they acknowledge there will have to be an option for paper certificates for those who do not have access to the digital option.

In developing the scheme, officials will take into account three factors, whether an individual has received the vaccine, has recently tested negative for the virus, or has “natural immunity” having tested positive in the previous six months.

Ministers believe the scheme will be most useful in managing the risks where the are large numbers of people in close proximity such as music festivals, sporting matches and nightclubs.

Settings where certification will not be required include essential shops and public transport.

It will also not apply initially to businesses which are set to reopen over the coming weeks such as pubs, restaurants and non-essential retail.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Officials are working with clinical and ethical experts to ensure there are “appropriate exemptions” for people who are advised to the vaccine and for whom repeat testing would be difficult.

Boris Johnson, who will set out more details on Monday, said: “We have made huge strides over the past few months with our vaccine programme and everyone in the country has made huge sacrifices to get us to this stage in our recovery from Covid-19.

“We are doing everything we can to enable the reopening of our country so people can return to the events, travel and other things they love as safely as possible, and these reviews will play an important role in allowing this to happen.”

The Prime Minister will also outline the Government’s approach for easing restrictions on foreign travel when its global travel task force reports on April 12.

Ministers have made clear that the ban on foreign travel will remain in place until at least May 17.

When it is finally lifted, it will be replaced by a risk-based “traffic light” system with red, amber and green ratings for countries around the world.

A plane leaves Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Peter Byrne/PA)
A plane at Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Peter Byrne/PA)

This will be based on a range of factors, including the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated, rates of infection, emerging new variants and the country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.

Travellers arriving from countries rated “green” will not be required to isolate although pre-departure and post-arrival tests will still be needed.

For those classed as “amber” or “red”, the restrictions will remain as they are with arrivals required to isolate or enter quarantine.