Forty Thousand Fans Cram Into Music Festival as England Takes Huge, but Very Fun, Gamble

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HENHAM PARK, England—Some 40,000 unmasked music fans descended on farmland here in rural Suffolk this weekend, for a four-day music festival that represents the country’s biggest real-world experiment so far in living alongside coronavirus, as the country shrugged off all remaining restrictions after 16 months of constraints.

The Latitude festival required all attendees to show proof that they were either fully vaccinated or in possession of a negative COVID test as a condition of entry, but there was no requirement for social distancing.

Screaming music fans responded by cramming around open-air stages and inside covered tents to see a lineup of acts like The Chemical Brothers, Wolf Alice, and ’80s pop legend Rick Astley, who of course performed his 1988 No. 1 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which has since become famous as an internet prank, at the event’s Obelisk and Trailer Park stages.

Latitude, which was canceled last year, was the first large-scale multi-day event in England since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and formed part of the British government’s Events Research Program. Staff and performers were all tested. Irish post-punk rockers Fontaines D.C. were among the few acts to cancel after testing positive.

The festival, which began on Thursday at 5 p.m. and wrapped up in the early hours of Monday morning, was blessed with fine weather and only a smattering of rain despite severe floods hitting other parts of the country that have shuttered hospitals and closed roads. Despite dire weather warnings, festival-goers were more at risk of sunstroke than seeing their tents washed away.

Performer after performer appeared close to tears to be back on stage, and many thanked the cheering crowds for their support in emotional scenes. The event’s organizer, Melvin Benn, told the BBC that it was a “a dream come true,” adding “The whole world is looking at Suffolk this weekend. This is really breaking ground.”

The event went ahead despite last-minute concerns about high COVID case numbers across England owing to the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. The country has seen a surge in cases in recent weeks, particularly among young men, who are believed to have become significant vectors for the virus after having gathered in large numbers to cheer on their country in the recent European soccer championships.

The U.K. lifted all remaining coronavirus restrictions last week. The laissez-faire approach has been condemned by many scientists, including the World Health Organization’s Mike Ryan, who described it as “epidemiological stupidity.”

On Sunday, 29,173 new positive cases were recorded in the U.K., but the number is trending downward from a peak of 50,000 per day a week ago, and there have been few deaths, stoking hopes that very high British vaccination rates, now touching 90 percent of adults, have rendered the virus much less deadly.

The country is also battling a “pingdemic” that has seen the National Health Service’s contact-tracing app send alerts to hundreds of thousands of workers who have been in physical proximity to confirmed cases, forcing them into isolation and stressing the nation’s supply chains. Confronted with images of empty supermarket shelves and gasoline pumps running dry, the government hastily amended the rules to allow food and other essential supply-chain workers who receive a “ping” to dodge isolation requirements if they can provide a negative test. Millions of people are believed to have simply deactivated or deleted the app.

Meanwhile, in London, six arrests were made at an anti-vaccine rally and police are investigating one of the speakers at the event, former nurse Kate Shemirani, who compared NHS workers to Nazis, saying, “At the Nuremberg trials, the doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung.”