On Monday 16th March, one week before the UK went into lockdown, I was out with my friends at Kremlin in Belfast. Despite still being open, the club was clearly conscious of the growing public health crisis and had put in place measures to protect their customers and staff.
As customers entered the club, they were required to sanitise their hands. Members of staff, working in the cloakroom and at the bar, were wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves and others. Due to the increasing fear of coronavirus, the club was much quieter than usual – leaving plenty of room on the dance floors. Perhaps the most surprising experience was queuing for the sinks in the toilets, as people paid attention to the public health guidance and washed their hands.
Kremlin shut its doors the next day and, like nightclubs all across the UK, has remained closed ever since. This has been a massive blow to the night time industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. According to the Market Research Report, the UK’s nine thousand nightclubs generate £2 billion for the economy every year and sustain over eighty thousand jobs.
The problem the industry faces is that nightclubs are not made for social distancing. Switch nightclub in my hometown of Preston became the first club in the UK to reopen with table service, but it does not offer a proper nightclub experience. You are not allowed to get up from your table to dance, because the club has to enforce social distancing, but the music is too loud to be able to talk to your friends. There are no discernible benefits to customers of going to the club over a pub.
While it makes no sense to enforce social distancing in nightclubs, there are measures that can be put in place to contain the spread of coronavirus:
1. Mandatory Test and Trace
Unlike pubs, most nightclubs charge for entry. To reopen properly in a COVID-secure way, the government could make it mandatory to pay in advance online. This would ensure that the names, emails and phone numbers of customers can automatically be shared with Test and Trace. The effectiveness of this approach can be seen from an outbreak in South Korea. When several people who went to a nightclub in Seoul tested positive for coronavirus back in May, they were able to trace their contacts and swiftly isolate 160 people.
2. Enhanced safety measures
In addition to mandatory contact tracing, nightclubs should be required to temperature check customers upon entry and provide hand sanitiser throughout their venues. They could also be told to limit capacity to prevent customers from being packed like sardines on the dance floors. It would also make sense for members of staff to be provided with masks, visors and gloves to allow them to return to work safely.
3. More testing at universities
The vast majority of people who go to nightclubs are in their late teens and early twenties, with an infection mortality rate of 0.03%. The danger does not come from young people spreading the virus to each other, but rather from spreading it to the elderly and vulnerable.
Testing capacity across the UK currently stands at 326,000, but there are only 190,000 tests being carried out each day. That spare capacity could be deployed to randomly test students at university for coronavirus, with a particular focus on those who regularly go to clubs. If asymptomatic transmission has taken place within the nightclub, it can then be identified by Test and Trace and used to prevent the spread of the virus to high risk groups.
With students returning to university in less than a month, the government needs to recognise that student areas like Queen’s will inevitably become big social bubbles. Those moving into student accommodation will start to mix with new groups and if students are unable to go to clubs, they will hold house parties instead.
In many ways, socialising in private dwellings is more risky than in nightclubs – with none of the added economic benefits. The argument for reopening nightclubs is that it is easier to identify an outbreak in a club than in a private dwelling and isolate those infected.
If it is not safe from a public health perspective to reopen nightclubs now, then it will not be safe to do so in winter. If, due to fears of a second wave, nightclubs are still not allowed to open when the furlough scheme comes to an end in October, tens of thousands of jobs will be lost and many venues will be forced to close for good.
This piece is not trying to downplay the threat from COVID-19. Despite the number of people in hospital falling by 96% since the peak of the pandemic, the virus remains in general circulation. It is still important to practise social distancing in public to protect the elderly and vulnerable. However, certain businesses cannot reopen with social distancing in place.
We need to use the other tools at our disposal, such as spare testing capacity, to allow nightclubs to reopen safely. The only alternative is to watch the industry collapse.
Ryan Hoey is a Politics Student at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the Chair of QUB Conservative and Unionist Society, and stood as a candidate in the 2018 Local Elections in England.