The UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic raises many questions. Was it quick enough? Has there been enough testing? Did we act appropriately in the early stages of the outbreak?
Perhaps it’s not the right time to wonder about what should and shouldn’t have happened as we continue to fight this disease. One thing we need to discuss, however, is the authorities’ reluctance to suspend major events until the very last moment. Cheltenham horse races with hundreds of thousands in attendance and football games held in at-capacity stadiums have already received wide criticism. But music events are no different.
British stars such as Lewis Capaldi, Morrissey and Stereophonics were playing for packed arenas all over the UK as recently as a few weeks ago. With thousands of fans squeezed into minuscule standing areas, like in a game of human Tetris, it’s not hard to see why concerts are being considered as a possible cause of avoidable mass-infections with COVID-19.
The Stereophonics show at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, on March 11, was one of the last big gigs before the ban on mass gatherings and I happened was there. Here is what concert-going looks like in the middle of a pandemic.
Looking over your shoulder
The usual door queue outside in the cold now operated under social distancing rules. Or, at least, it was supposed to, as some of the concert-goers couldn’t be bothered to keep a safe distance from others. Security at the venue had, at least in theory, been ramped up, though bag searches are notably more difficult to carry out from two meters away.
If social distancing seemed unattainable outside, once inside it became downright impossible. The seats at the SSE Hydro aren’t nearly two metres apart and in the standing section you’d have been lucky to find two centimetres of space. Efforts to limit toilet access to only a few people at a time seemed futile in a venue packed to capacity everywhere else.
Other misguided measures included limiting entry to the standing area to just two doors, with the rest remaining inexplicably locked, and allowing the band to perform on a catwalk leading into the middle of the crowd. This led bottlenecks to form and rendered any personal attempts at social distancing absolutely useless.
My friends and I arrived just as the gig was starting and settled near the back of the standing section. In the brief moments before the lights went down, we saw many up ahead in the crowd nervously glance over their shoulder. Though the music blared, it couldn’t drown out the thought of COVID-19 weighing on people’s minds. Anytime someone squeezed through the crowd, intense stares followed, even more than usual.
I’ve seen Stereophonics perform four times now. This last gig was just a little bit quieter, a little bit less enthusiastic, enough to make the whole evening feel eerie. In the backs of our minds, we were all aware of the risks we were exposing ourselves to. Yet here we were, listening to our favourite band play their best-known tunes.
Questions to be asked
At the end of the night, my friends and I managed to avoid most of the crowd thanks to our strategic position at the back of the venue. But we were among the lucky few. In hindsight, it will be events like this one that are criticised when the UK’s handling of this pandemic comes under scrutiny.
The likelihood is that at least one person out of the hundreds of thousands at mass gatherings like the horse races at Cheltenham or the Stereophonics gig in Glasgow had COVID-19. They could easily have passed it on to someone, who passed it on to someone else, who in turn passed it onto someone else. You get the picture.
These events shouldn’t have been allowed to continue and the financial reasons for not cancelling should have taken a backseat. The threat was well known by mid-March and, though an axe to large gatherings loomed large, we ploughed on.
We’ll eventually overcome the virus. But this writer wonders whether the UK took too long to discern its priorities and what each of us could have done to help in the early stages.