Sports fans warned: you will be guinea pigs at UK summer events


People attending major sporting events over the next few weeks should be told explicitly that they are taking part in potentially risky research, scientists have warned.

Approximately 40,000 fans are due to attend England’s clash with Germany at Wembley on Tuesday, while the crowd will be 60,000 for the semi-finals and final next week. Tens of thousands will head to Wimbledon from tomorrow, while next month 140,000 are expected at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.

Health experts say these events are being permitted purely to determine the risks involved in major gatherings that might then be held later in the year as the nation attempts to return to some kind of normality.

“These are research projects. That is the only reason they are being permitted,” said Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He added that he was concerned people were buying tickets without realising these events were being permitted only to assess the likelihood of viruses being spread at large gatherings.

“We have to do this if we want to fully open up sporting and cultural events. I accept that, but I’m not sure people buying tickets are fully aware that there is a risk involved, and that the purpose of the event is to measure what dangers are posed.”

Last week, the UK government’s Events Research Programme reported that it had found that coronavirus transmission was no higher among those who attended a series of sports and entertainment events that were held in April and May than it had been in the general population at the time.

The news triggered encouraging noises from the government that mass events could open up without restrictions from 19 July.

But Edmunds sounded a note of caution. The events studied over the two previous months had relatively low attendances and were held at a time when prevalence of the virus in the general population was also very low. Today, it is much higher and crowds at future events will be much greater and more closely packed, he added. “We need to bear that in mind,” he said. The vast majority of people taking part in the pilots failed to return PCR tests [after the event], casting further doubt over the results.

This point was backed by Shaun Fitzgerald, from the department of engineering at Cambridge University. “These events are part of a research programme and would not be going ahead if they did not have a scientific purpose.

“The data we get back about the viral transmission that occurs at these gatherings will then inform the decisions made about future mass gatherings later in the year.”

Fitzgerald added that the crowd research envisaged for the Euros, Wimbledon and Silverstone was on a par with clinical trials in which people cooperate to test the efficacy and safety of drugs and vaccines for the good of society.

“Certainly it is very important that everybody attending understands this is part of a research exercise.”

During the course of the research, scientists will study the impact of “pinch points” where attendees might congregate; the usefulness of masks and ventilation; the impact of testing; and the effectiveness of social distancing measures.

Analysis by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) has also identified travel to and from the venue as potentially a greater risk than behaviour at the venue itself, where activity can be more regulated, added John Drury, professor of social psychology at Sussex University.

“However, the other key point made is that risk behaviours – such as proximity and touching – are driven by psychological processes that are subject to change,” he said.

“As part of this, it’s really important that key information is provided to fans – such as the importance of not breathing others’ air.”