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Pilot event: ‘Act normally’, they said. But could I remember how?

When the call came to attend Liverpool’s Good Business Festival kick-off event, ‘Change Business for Good’, it was an unhesitant “yes” from me.

The chance to get out of the house, the chance to meet others, to network and attend a live, in-person event – it was always going to be a yes.

But the Change Business for Good event came with a difference. This was the first live event in England since the national lockdown in March 2020 without Covid-specific safety measurements for delegates. No mask-wearing, no social distancing – just good old event-attending.

The event was part of the government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), a science-led initiative to get audiences back safely as restrictions are gradually eased. Scientists from the University of Liverpool, Loughborough University, UCL and the University of Edinburgh were all in attendance to gather data.

To enter the event at ACC Liverpool, all attendees were required to take a lateral flow test within 24 hours prior to attending and were encouraged to take a free at-home PCR test on the day of the event and also five days afterwards.

This thorough testing would dramatically reduce the risk of transmission and infection, to the extent that scientists analysing the event said they were “not expecting to find transmission of the virus” at the event.

Data from this event and other similar ERP events,including the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield on 17 April, and the Brit Awards in London on 11 May, will be analysed to help determine how festivals, gigs, conferences and sporting events can take place again with large audiences.

Factors such as airflow through the venue, potential bottlenecks in certain places and how people moved around the venue were all measured.

In a press briefing before the event, professor Iain Buchan from the Institute of Population Health at the University of Liverpool said that he “welcomes” the event and that it’s “heartening” to see people reconnect again.

He added that he didn’t want attendees to act “artificially” and to engage how they normally would at an event where Covid-19 didn’t exist.

I had some reservations over this. Could I remember how to walk within two metres of someone – and not be wholly alarmed to see a stranger’s lips moving when they talk?

I soon found out I could remember.

After a stress-free train journey from East Sussex to Liverpool Lime Street – far easier than flying I may add – I found my way to Hotel Pullman Liverpool. I’ve never taken so much glee in saying: “It’s a business trip…” The check-in was smooth with only a few additional questions such as “Do you have any Covid-19 symptoms?” Thankfully, the answer was no and the on-site lateral flow test I took the morning of the Change Business for Good event proved as much.

The on-site, walk-in test centre was genius. A simple scan of a QR code and helpful directions from the test centre volunteers meant I had shoved the swab down my throat and up my nose within five minutes of arriving and within 40 minutes I got the email to say I was negative.

Given that Brits are already accustomed to queuing, the pandemic has taken standing in a line to a new level. I had visions of people in high-vis jackets telling us where to stand, floor markings and long-queues everywhere.

But I am delighted to report that there was none of that at the Change Business for Good pilot event. Such a lack of anything Covid-19-related made the whole thing seem, dare I say it, very normal.

Originally, only those who had signed up to the Events Research Programme were permitted to take their masks off in the venue. But a few hours before the event kicked off, Public Health England sent word that all attendees could de-mask and mingle.

And mingle we did. Handshakes were distributed like they were going out of fashion and the occasional hug between industry colleagues was exchanged.

To reiterate, all very normal. And normal is what we need.

As an industry that was worth £70bn to the UK economy and employed more than 700,000 people pre-Covid, the sector needs to get back to normal. The pilot event in Liverpool revealed a glimpse of what business meetings and events can be in the very near future, while also casting a memory of what events were like before the pandemic.

The feeling of safety and confidence came from the knowledge that everyone in the room had had a negative Covid-19 test result within 24 hours prior to the event.

Among the data the scientists were collecting was whether people still wanted to meet.

The answer: yes. More than ever.

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