A public health expert who oversaw successful Covid-safe events in Liverpool has called for a stronger safety net at large scale gatherings – as MSPs raised fears over a Scotland football “fan zone”.
Professor Iain Buchan said he would want fans to take a Covid test as part of entry requirements to any large-scale event under current conditions.
It comes as SNP Government health secretary Humza Yousaf defended plans to bring thousands of people together in Glasgow to celebrate the national men’s football team’s Euro 2020 appearance.
At Holyrood on Tuesday, Mr Yousaf would only “encourage” people to take a test and claimed there are “equalities” issues in enforcing it as a condition of entry.
Professor Buchan’s public health role in Liverpool was hailed after four pilot events passed without any detectable spread of Covid-19 in May. More than 13,000 people attended a business conference, two nightclubs and a music festival after producing a negative test to get in. They were encouraged to take another on the day and five days afterwards to help with research.
Five people were filtered out during the screenings, at a time when Covid was lower on the way out of lockdown.
In Glasgow, which has only just left Level 3 restrictions, two allocations of 3,000 people are expected in the afternoon and evening sessions. The fenced-off area will feature big screens to watch all the Euro games, a family area, live entertainment and a bar area with table service.
In an exclusive interview, Prof Buchan said he could not comment on the specifics of the Glasgow plan but said he would like to see improvements on the Liverpool “safety net”.
He said: “That includes reinforcement of communication with the audience to report any symptoms, that we move the timing of the testing as close to the event as possible – and I wouldn’t consider going ahead with any large indoor events, or large mixing events, at the moment without testing in place, if it was in Liverpool.”
Asked if testing should be a prerequisite for entry to a similar event, he continued: “That’s the decision I would take in Liverpool, yes, based on our experience.”
Despite the anxiety about potential spread of infection, Prof Buchan – Dean of the Institute of Population Health at the University of Liverpool – said every opportunity should be taken to open up safely.
‘We all need hope’
Prof Buchan said it had been a rewarding experience to see the “explosion of joy” at events in Liverpool including a music festival at Sefton Park.
“If it can be done, we should do it,” he said. “We all need hope and that was an incredible weekend.”
Asked what advice he would give to fan zone organisers if they were in his city, he added: “Proceed with cautious optimism and deep involvement with your audience and event-goers.”
And should there be mandatory testing? “Yes,” he added.
In Holyrood on Tuesday, Mr Yousaf was pressed on the plans by Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole Hamilton, who wanted assurances about the lack of mandatory testing.
Mr Cole Hamilton said: “Asymptomatic testing has been an integral part of trial events across the United Kingdom, including entry to the FA cup final last month. Euro 2020 events are being advertised as taking place in a Covid-secure environment, but there is no way on earth of verifying that without knowing the Covid status of every participant.”
Mr Yousaf said it should be “low risk”, adding: “We will continue the discussions with Glasgow City Council in that regard. However, there are issues to do with mandatory testing that cannot be ignored. For example, some people cannot take a test, perhaps because of a medical condition or disability. In addition, there are ethical considerations, which the member’s party has raised in relation to Covid vaccination certificates. Some of the same concerns apply when it comes to making tests mandatory. There are equality issues.
“There are also issues to do with digital exclusion. If people have to present a text or email that confirms a negative test, that will affect people who are digitally excluded.”
He continued: “I encourage every person who has a ticket to any session in the fan zone to test before arrival, please. People can order lateral flow devices to be delivered to their homes or they can pick them up from multiple sites across the country.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, a Highlands and Islands MSP, said 6,000 people can meet in Glasgow but other restrictions are still in places on ordinary family events.
Responding to a statement from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the latest Covid rules, Mr Ross said: “There are no easy solutions but the public deserve better than being told to just put up with contradictory rules.”