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Inside Download Festival: ‘It was a liberating feeling to take off the mask’

Big Issue reporter Liam Geraghty steps inside the biggest multiday maskless event in the UK since the pandemic began.

The Big Issue’s intrepid reporter, Liam Geraghty, got his wellies on to attend Download Festival 2021. The three-day rock festival is officially called Download Pilot this year to test transmission in large outdoor gatherings and is the biggest multi-day maskless event in the UK since the pandemic began, with 10,000 music fans flooding Donington Park.

Rock and metal music is all about raising your middle finger to the rules – but for music to ring out over muddy fields in the UK once again, there were a few new rules to contend with.

The Download Pilot festival put the future of British festivals and live gigs in the hands of metalheads. The three-day festival at Leicestershire’s Donington Park was the biggest maskless event in the UK yet bringing together 10,000 hardy head-banging souls with 32 bands without social distancing.

I was among them and, as this was for science, it is only right that I donned a lab coat for the occasion.

But going back to the mosh pit involved rigorous testing to ensure no one had the dreaded ‘C word’. Festival-goers were required to produce a negative lateral flow test result to gain entry while they also needed to send off a PCR test to researchers either the night before or the morning of the festival. And five days following the event, every attendee is required to post another PCR test to determine whether anyone contracted the virus during the event.

It’s too early at the time of writing to determine the results. But if the event went off without a hitch it will be music to the ears of gig-goers, promoters and bands who have seen the live music industry decimated during the pandemic.

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The Download Pilot took place against the backdrop of rising cases across the UK with a race to get young people vaccinated to halt transmission and restrictions extended beyond Freedom Day. England’s Covid restrictions had been due to end the day after the festival closed on June 21 but instead that day coincided with the cancellation of another festival, Kendall Calling.

However, the Download Pilot’s true power came from ensuring all Covid talk remained a backdrop rather than root of everything, as has seemingly been the case with every conversation since March 2020.

Once the extra checks on entry were complete – a remarkably efficient process – festival-goers had the moment we have all been waiting for: the chance to rip off the facemask. And let me tell you, it was a damn liberating feeling.

This was my ninth Download Festival and even though this year’s event was smaller, it still felt recognisable as a slice of what had gone before. It felt like going back in time to the before times. It felt like being in international waters, where the rules didn’t apply. And after living under restrictions, rules and lock and key for 16 months, it felt right.

That familiarity went some way to overcoming the anxiety of returning to normality. For some the lights, the noise and the small matter of returning to close proximity with 10,000 people might have been overwhelming but most didn’t show it.

All your festival favourites were there. The circle pits, the crowdsurfers, the guy dressed as a banana – “There’s always a guy dressed as a banana,” quipped Enter Shikari drummer Rob Rolfe in their Saturday headliner set.

Even Skindred’s signature Newport Helicopter took flight again – lead singer Benji Webbe asks everyone in the audience to take off their shirt and swing it above their heads – once Benji had cleared it with the PM in an on-stage ‘phone call’.

The liberating feeling was not just limited to the audience. There were plenty of grins between band members as they got back into the swing of playing again. And while lead singers still urged you to “Jump, motherfucker, jump!”, just as many let the mask slip for a few seconds to speak on the emotions of getting back to the stage.

Of all the things Covid has robbed from us, culture, shared experiences and a sense of community have been right among them – Download Pilot brought that back into sharper focus.

But some things remain the same. The festival kicked off to customary thunderstorms, accompanied by a yellow weather warning from the Met Office.

As the guy on the loudspeaker welcoming punters put it: “Welcome to 2021’s best festival. It might be raining, but no one else is getting wet through at a festival in the UK right now.”

Here’s hoping the Download Pilot paves the way for more music fans to take on the traditional battle with the elements once again. Even if swabbing your nose and throat is now rock ‘n’ roll.

How large-scale events are returning

The Download Pilot was the latest in the UK government’s Events Research Programme designed to assess how huge-scale concerts, sporting events and other large gatherings can return.

Theatre director Nicholas Hynter and David Ross, the former chair of the government’s sport, technology and innovation group, are overseeing the events with data from Covid tests taken before and after attendance used to advise on restrictions.

The World Snooker Championship kicked off the programme in April with a full attendance at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre for the final match on May 2.

Wembley hosted three of the initial run of events with the FA Cup semi-finals and Final as well as the Carabao Cup Final. So far, the FA Cup Final’s 21,000 capacity is the biggest single gathering to date, dwarfing the 4,000 people allowed at The BRIT Awards.

There was no detectable spread among the 13,000 people who attended two nightclub events, a music festival and a business conference in Liverpool with the city’s public health director Matt Ashton concluding the events were “undoubtedly a success” according to the BBC.

Overall, Oliver Dowden told the Evening Standard just 15 positive cases were attributed to the 58,000 people who attended the initial run of events. That paved the way for the Download Pilot festival to become the biggest multi-day maskless events with 10,000 people staying over three days.

The final four Euro 2020 games to be held at Wembley will be included in the programme with 40,000 fans in attendance – the largest crowd anywhere for 15 months. The Wimbledon Tennis Championships will also be at 50 per cent attendance throughout the tournament with full capacity for the two finals days on July 10 and 11.

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