How science and society came together for the Events Research Programme

Posted on: 5 May 2021 by Professor Iain Buchan in May posts

Professor Iain Buchan at Sefton Park, Liverpool
Professor Iain Buchan attending the event pilot at Sefton Park, Liverpool

After a momentous weekend in Liverpool, we caught up with Professor Iain Buchan – now officially known as ‘The Party Professor’ – to find out about the Events Research Programme, and how he and teams across the UK will be working together to find out if live, large-scale events can resume safely and securely post-Covid.

Can you tell us a bit about the Events Research Programme?

The Events Research Programme is a fantastic partnership between national and local scientists, Liverpool City Council, the event organisers, and the people of Liverpool City Region. A lot of people concentrated at the University of Liverpool have partnered with the Council's events team, Public Health teams and with event organizers to capture and analyse the data on how to build a safety net around events that involves testing - people had to get tested in the 24 hours before the event.

There's also a social responsibility piece to that safety net.  People have to declare if they have any symptoms, and not go on the day if they do. For research purposes, we've done another two tests. We've asked people to take some home tests that are not part of the entry criteria - a PCR test on the event day, and five days later. We're looking for any signs of virus, but we're not expecting to see much, as rates are low at the moment (around 1 in 1000). So if you apply testing on top of that with lateral flow rapid antigen tests, they detect around 8 out of 10 likely infectious individuals. So the chance of encountering someone in one of these venues has been very low, maybe 1 in 5000.  The acceptable level of risk was rightly a local public health decision - informed by good science – a decision that now is a good time to build that safety net.

People attending live concert at Sefton Park 2021

People attending the Sefton Park pilot live event, May 2021

We’re developing and testing the early warning system that needs to be in place so that we have all the data, should we need to ramp up safety measures later on. If rates were to rise a little bit in July, let’s say, do we have the very quick flow of information between testing and ticketing, and so between public health teams and event organizers? Do you know who everyone is? Can you trace them quickly? It’s a bit like putting a contact tracing system in place for an outbreak that has not happened. Can the local public health team handle that amount of information in a short period of time? That's what we've really tested - that pre-emptive safety net, and whether the audience understands how important it is that they are part of that safety net. This includes the choices they make, such as minimizing their unnecessary contacts with other people in the days leading up to the event. And afterwards, we can all play our part in securing these events.

Why was Liverpool selected for these pilot events?

Liverpool was selected because it's been a global pioneer city in voluntary 'mass' or 'community' testing – testing open to people irrespective of whether or not they have symptoms. The people of Liverpool embraced this community scheme and so the region knows more about the background patterns of the virus than other places. If you want to understand the potential impacts of events, you need a lot of background information. Liverpool's probably the best place in the world to understand this. The local economy is also reliant on events, hospitality and visitors – so there is a civic, societal need to generate the evidence in Liverpool.

How did you work with the other organisations in Liverpool to make these events happen?

This is a partnership that's been growing over the past year, a remarkable partnership of science and society. I'd say it's one of the most rewarding partnerships of my working life. The Events, Communications and Public Health teams in Liverpool City Council have worked with us in the University as one family. A lot of hard work has been done in a very short period, and that's based on trust, hard work, courage and capability. Liverpool had already identified in December the need to open events with a 'testing shield' when it was safe to do so when the vaccination scheme was advanced, and rates were low. Because of the tight partnership in community testing between the University, the City Council, the NHS and the population, there was the ability to offer a well prepared community for the Events Research Programme.

Professor Iain Buchan and event official at Sefton park event

Professor Iain Buchan with an event official at Sefton Park

What has been the most challenging aspect up to this point?

Timescales. Events are complicated - there are a lot of moving parts. Public health operations in a pandemic also have a lot of moving parts! You put the two together, and it's super complex. There's a lot to consider - consequences of actions that are interconnected in ways that they don't normally work, ticket offices don't normally accept health information! They didn't have a process for doing that, so we had to create ways for the world of events to work efficiently with the world of public health, and communicate that to both the scientific audience and the public attending the events. A project like this might take a year to plan in normal times – we had a month – pandemic timescales are tight, and Liverpool is responsive.

What were your personal highlights of the events that took place over the past week?

I think the finale at Sefton Park with over 5000 people. I've never seen a crowd cry happy tears - the event organizers, the audience, the press and guests broke out into song an hour before the bands came on. There was an outpouring of joy. And suddenly all the very hard work on the science and the logistics - you could see it was worthwhile. You saw a part of public health that's about social fabric, mental health and wellbeing just come alive in that room. A GP friend of mine was there, she's 58. She wanted her teenage twins to go, but they were just under age. She was crying too and it was the most joyous, collective experience I think many of us have ever encountered and probably will ever encounter. It was major goosebumps time.

Hear some interviews with Professor Iain Buchan and experiences of some of the event-goers from 3rd May 2020 who say the event was 'when music came back to life'.  

So, what happens now?

Our teams are looking at the data coming in from testing, ticketing, social media, questionnaires and field reports from people on the ground at the events. Colleagues in other universities in Loughborough, London, and Edinburgh are looking at environmental, crowd movement and other aspects. They're taking data from carbon dioxide sensors for air quality and the AI behind the cameras, for example to see how closely people stand together. We're going to put the different threads of research together. Liverpool is the only place where all the components come into a social critical mass of multiple events happening as they would be. These are realistic events, they weren't artificial. The Wembley events were not as a big football match would normally be run, but at the nightclub, I can tell you it was pretty realistic because I was terrified! That was full on. The business event and the music festival were held as they would normally be too. So realistic evidence will come out of Liverpool. We will crunch the numbers and deliver a draft report that goes first to Government in May, then fuller public reports come after 11th June. A 'know how' guide might also be written with the teams on the ground to provide a blueprint for others needing to run events and public health operations in a tightly coupled way. A lot of data is being crunched and notes being swapped over the next week or so.

Who will you be working with to analyze the results?

The Institute of Population Health has a great health data science team who take data from an integrated system that we have in Cheshire and Merseyside called CIPHA (Combined Intelligence for Population Health Action). That gives us a feed, so the CIPHA team have been working really hard over the weekend and matching ticketing and testing. We’ll then be marrying the data that comes back from the follow up tests, and they don't conclude until Friday.  They have to be processed by a laboratory in Cambridge - it will be the middle of next week when the full data comes through. The teams have got the ability to flow data from public health, NHS and ticketing into the Institute of Population Health in a secure, de-identified form for analysis. The data teams who worked on community testing are also working on events, so they are used to handling these kinds of data. Marta Garcia-Finana, David Hughes, Chris Cheyne, Girvan Burnside - they’re the team in health data science. Gary Leeming and teams at the Civic Data Cooperative, and Michael Humann deploying questionnaires at military pace from Psychology - they've been helping make sure the data flows work between ticketing, testing and questioning. Gary's worked really hard with his counterpart in events who is the data lead of Robin Kemp. Rhiannon Corcoran and her team are running focus groups and Kay O’Halloran and teams in Humanities and Social Sciences are analysing social media feeds. The Faculty of Science and Engineering is also involved via Simon Maskell and colleagues. Everyone's rolled their sleeves up and really worked as one.

What does it mean to be part of the University of Liverpool at this time?

I'm very proud because we've delivered on our civic mission and founding principle of advancing learning and ennobling life. We've made science work very fast, and very deep with social purpose. We looked at the needs of underserved communities, we've studied inequalities and Covid-19 extensively. We’re now responding to the needs of those affected most by lockdowns and other restrictions – particularly younger people needing reconnect in that way that's important for their formative experiences and general wellbeing. That has been missing for a very long time. And a whole sector of the economy has been dormant, with many of our residents facing unemployment. This University has contributed to so many aspects of the COVID response, I'm immensely proud of being at the University of Liverpool.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, I promise to revisit my dress sense in a nightclub! The New York Times sent that tweet out and I've acquired a label of the party professor somehow! My friends have laughed their heads off because they know I can't dance!

On the serious side, the main point I'd like to make is teamwork. I am humbled and delighted by how well the teams across the University of Liverpool, local agencies and city council, NHS and most of all the local community, have just mucked in.  There has been 170 years of public health innovation here and that spirit of Liverpool is alive and well - just as it was with TB in the 1950s, cholera in the 1800s. There's a grit, social responsibility and determination that just delivers the generosity of spirit in Liverpool and it’s remarkable.

Discover more

View the latest analysis of Liverpool City Region’s Covid-SMART community testing initiative (December 2020 – July 2021) that will help policymakers, public health teams and the public with community approaches to Covid-19 testing.

Find out more about Professor Iain Buchan's Covid-19 work and view the interview on May 2020 at the Sefton Park Festival Pilot site.

Explore the wide range of Covid-19 research work going on at the University of Liverpool.