London’s weekend of sport was one giant Covid experiment

The Euro 2020 final was a trial of the wisdom of crowds.
The Euro 2020 final was a trial of the wisdom of crowds.
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Roughly 60,000 fans packed Wembley Stadium on Sunday to watch Italy defeat England in the final of the Euro 2020 football tournament. The same weekend, Wimbledon’s Centre Court was full: 15,000 people witnessed Novak Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty win their singles titles. And on Saturday, 23,000 spectators filled Lord’s Cricket Ground, where England played Pakistan.

Now England waits, with anxious anticipation, to see how many of these sports devotees fall ill with Covid-19.

All three events were part of England’s move towards July 19, when the economy reopens completely following the coronavirus pandemic. At Lord’s and Wimbledon, there were no limits on attendance; Wembley was two-thirds full, as it was during the Euro semi-finals earlier in the week.  As the first major sporting contests permitted to play to such massive crowds since the pandemic began, they were also trials. The goal: to help the government understand not only if such fixtures are safe, but also the kinds of protocols that full-capacity events will need in the near future.

England waits for an open season

The summer has been building up to this. Wimbledon began on June 28 at 50% capacity, working its way up to a full Centre Court for the finals. England’s first game during the Euro 2020, against Croatia at Wembley, was allowed to host a maximum of 22,500 spectators. Any sporting events that were not a part of this special pilot scheme could draw a maximum of 10,000 people or a quarter of their capacity, whichever was lower.

To attend any of the weekend’s games, spectators could show proof of having received two vaccination doses, with the second dose having been administered at least 14 days prior. (Roughly 64% of the UK’s adult population has had both vaccine doses.) Or they could bring a negative result from a lateral flow test conducted within 48 hours of their visit. Residents of England could also show, via their National Health Service (NHS) app, that they had natural immunity from having suffered a bout of Covid-19 within the last 180 days.

The games were tests of the effectiveness of Covid status certification, Prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said in mid-June, when the government first laid its plans out. Many of the questions surrounding these certifications are still unanswered. For instance: will people taking lateral flow tests self-report their results honestly enough to forestall flares of disease post-event? Will the UK have to consider vaccination-only entry criteria, as some US events—such as a Bruce Springsteen concert or live tapings of Saturday Night Live—have done? Does a 180-day-old bout of Covid still guarantee natural immunity, especially when variants of the coronavirus are floating around?

The NHS stores contact details from self-reported lateral flow tests as part of its ongoing Test and Trace program, allowing health workers to follow up with spectators and advise them to test themselves in case another audience member tests positive for Covid.

Spectators who attended the recent pilot sporting events also had their movements recorded and analyzed by Movement Strategies, a crowd-dynamics consultancy, to study effective ventilation patterns and the flow of people through large venues. A small sample of the crowd was asked to voluntarily wear tracking devices while in the stadium, to chart their locations and paths over the course of the games.

The weekend of sport had high stakes

For the government, which has committed itself to an irreversible schedule of reopening in full, the stakes are enormous. If these pilot events trigger no bursts of disease among their spectators, they will offer blueprints for more events and venues through the summer: nightclubs, stadiums, concert halls, indoor arenas.

In 2018, theater and live music alone generated £2.3 billion ($3.2 billion) in revenue and employed close to half a million people; last year, these sectors were shuttered through most of the year. The 2020 lockdown cost the English Premier League £1 billion in pre-tax revenue losses. Finding successful ways to stage these events again will not only help companies and employees make up for last year, but will also validate the effectiveness of the UK’s vaccination rollout and lockdown plans.

On the other hand, if these pilot capacity crowds lead directly to spikes in Covid cases, that will set back the government’s plans. The authorities will have to find tighter regulations for fixtures, such as the implementation of “vaccine passports,” which events in the US have used. Johnson has resisted this notion, out of a concern that vaccine passports discriminate against people who are unable to get vaccinated for health reasons.

A runaway rate of infection, with an accompanying rise in hospitalizations and deaths, will jeopardize full reopening altogether, forcing the government to bring the shutters back down once more to control the disease. And it will revise ideas of what it means to “live with Covid”—what’s possible, and what isn’t, in the very near future.