Many clubbers appreciate the pre-party-ritual of sticking something up their nose. This past weekend, that something was a swab, and it was all in the name of science.
In the last week of April, 6,000 people waited 30 minutes for their results from a lateral flow test for COVID-19. Those who tested negative could attend one of two nights taking place at Liverpool’s Bramley-Moore Dock Warehouse, for the UK’s first COVID nightclub test.
Titled “The First Dance” – and organised by promoters Circus – the test was part of the government’s Events Research Programme (or ERP). It aims to “provide key scientific data” on how large-scale events can safely return as part of the roadmap out of lockdown laid out in February. No social distancing or face masks were required upon entry, just proof of a negative test within 24 hours of the party’s start time.
The tense excitement at the first event, on Friday the 30th April, was palpable. An enthusiastic sniffer spaniel dragged its police handler around the snaking queues, a bully van ran laps of the road around the venue and the old boys sitting outside the pub opposite watched on with intrigue. As a wise man once said: here we, here we, here we fucking go.
At 33, Owen was among the older attendees in a crowd populated mostly by students and young Liverpudlians. Coming in, he said he felt “a bit of anxiety, but I mostly just felt, like, ‘fuck it’ – we need to blow off all this pent-up energy”.
David – who turned 18 last July, mid-pandemic – said the past year has been “fucking shite”. So was this his first time out in a club? Salma, 20, butted in to answer for him: “In Liverpool, we start at 14.”
The doors to the club opened at two in the afternoon, and by seven o’clock everyone was caned – plastic bottles of rosé were held aloft in a sea of wide eyes and big smiles.
Young people have been at the harsh end of lockdown restrictions – whether through the exams debacle, being barricaded into university halls where they’ve had to stump up full fees for a half-baked learning experience, or simply all being blamed as part of some homogenous group responsible for every new spike in cases.
So there was something immediately rejuvenating about seeing all the various tribes coming together in service of both the sesh and science: the UV face paint crew; jacked steroid lads; tearaway teens; posh posers; trendy voguers; veteran ravers; dance music connoisseurs.
For the DJs playing, it was also hard to think of a gig with a more willing audience: Jayda G led fist-pumping singalongs, The Blessed Madonna swung her cropped locks from side-to-side as she launched through a pummelling industrial set, and Youssef opened his set with Ultra Nate’s “Free”, with the confetti cannon-assisted chorus providing a binding, rush-from-the-bar moment as people piled in and sang, “Because you’re free, to do what you want to do.”
Still, in spite of all the fun, it’s not immediately obvious how The First Dance will provide research data beyond observations about venue layout and ventilation. While attendees had to test negative beforehand, testing after the event isn’t mandatory.
By contrast, trial events run in Barcelona by the organisers of Primavera Sound have used control groups and post-event testing to gather information about transmission and infection rates. Attendees at The First Dance were “urged” to take a PCR test (the more reliable one) at home on the day of the event and five days afterwards, but it’s not clear how the organisers intend to further encourage or enable this to happen.
What is clear is that it’s a good press day for a government that’s managed to bungle and bullshit its way through the entire crisis – a government desperate for its own version of those Wuhan pool party snaps that were beamed around the world last August.
The night was arguably not the same PR slam-dunk for Friday’s headliner, techno DJ Sven Väth, whose booking drew added attention to his decision to play at so-called “plague raves” during the pandemic.
Väth played in India as recently as this March. The country’s ongoing struggle with another brutal wave of the virus has been well documented, despite government efforts to brush off criticism. One of Saturday night’s special guests, DJ duo Solardo, were also criticised for playing shows in COVID hotspots. The decision to book these acts felt like an oversight at best, and a sort of callous ignorance at worst.
For DJs who’ve continued to travel and tour, it might have felt like business as usual. But for the vast majority, it felt unreal.
“It’s a madness,” said Ida, 22. “It feels unnatural,” Ali, 20, chimed in, “like we’re in a dream.” Even the most hardened cynic would have struggled to throw off the hope and joy in the air.
A nurse who’s worked throughout the pandemic and was there with her friends said it felt like there’s an end in sight. “It’s just fucking great,” she said, between glugs of Strongbow Dark Fruit, “I feel like the world is finally getting back to normal.”
There was a mini chant of “fuck COVID” to close the night, which bloated into the swell of another old familiar: “One more tune! One more tune!”
In the end, no tune came, but the buzz was enough to carry the trooping mass to the makeshift taxi rank, and then to housebound after-parties stretching on until who knows when. Some had splashed on tickets for both nights and planned to roll through; others were sated, or exhausted, but mostly just relieved.
Sitting on the kerb in the dwindling light, taxis flitting by, shoes being swapped for walk-home pumps, 20-year-old Ellie – who, this time last year, was having her gap year travels interrupted by the virus outbreak – was jubilant. “It feels like a taste of what’s to come,” she said, a smile stretched across her cheeks. “Finally.”