On Freedom Day, some well-meaning nightclubs added a new step to their entry process: Covid testing. The problem is, clubbers aren’t playing by the rules.
To get into London nightclub, FOLD, you need to jump through a fair few hoops. First, you need to have the standard club entry gear: ID and a ticket. Next, you have to mission it to the depths of East London – I’m talking actual Docklands East, not Shoreditch East. On arrival, you want to be wearing the trademark black and leather uniform to blend in with the techno crowd. At the door, you will be made to cover your phone camera with a sticker because photos and videos are strictly off-limits. Oh, and you’ll also need proof of a negative Covid-19 test within the last 48 hours.
Unless, of course, you fake it.
FOLD is not the only nightclub in the UK requiring this kind of certification. Many clubs have enacted this policy as a precursor to the controversial vaccine passport system we can expect come September. Phonox in Brixton, White Hotel in Manchester, High Rise in Bristol, Engine Shed in Lincoln, and Dalston Superstore to name but a few – have all got onboard. It’s also becoming common for football games and festivals. This added safety step is intended to make events as Covid secure as possible and remove the need for people to sweat behind masks and Perspex screens.
Well, that would be the case, if the system wasn’t easier to cheat than a religious studies GCSE. Trust me, I did it. Last Friday, while sipping on a room temperature Brewdog I found lying about in my boyfriend’s room, hair half-curled and face glitter not yet dry, I unpacked a lateral flow test. Throat, nose, swirled it about, drip drop, then waited for a negative result. I got one.
But that test ID is not the one I reported on the government website. Instead, I reported a completely different test which no one had taken – it was blank. And the government, like an ageing sniffer dog, barked, “Is it negative, Maddy?”. And I said “yes, of course, thank you for asking government, I would never lie to you x”.
The test I completed was to make sure I didn’t go out and spread the virus during this club night. I can expose flaws in the government’s lateral flow testing system without killing people, I don’t need that on my conscience. The second test was to get me in. And it did, perfectly. Phone camera covered and several vodka Red Bulls deep, I entered the club.
The hairs on my arms raised as I felt the familiar thump of bass vibrating against my sternum. Everything smelt exactly the same as the last time I was in a club, even though so much has happened since. Between flashes of a strobe light, I spied people in techno goth outfits – think face tattoos, mesh bodysuits, and chunky boots – that looked like they were more fit for Berlin’s Berghain than Canning Town and boys in bucket hats galore. A fair few ravers even donned masks.
Most of the night passed like any other. I forgot about my dishonesty and just had a good time. Until around 6am, when, sat on the smoking area floor, I noticed something littered about which wasn’t the usual nitrous oxide canister or cigarette butt. It was a bunch of blank, unused lateral flow tests. Perhaps, I wasn’t alone in my methods.
I also wasn’t the first. One week ago and 202 miles away, Leeds student Billy* was testing himself for Covid-19 with his mates. The group was preparing for a night out at Fruity, a regular Leeds University Student Union club night. Last Friday was the final Fruity of the academic year and Billy was excited to party with friends until he tested positive on his lateral flow. But as he went to enter his result on the government website, he noticed that the system depended on him revealing his result – it needed him to tell the truth. So he lied.
“At that point, we kinda decided as a collective that it was too late to sell the ticket,” Billy told JOE. “I didn’t feel too guilty because I’d been vaccinated with two jabs. I also had a situation where my flatmate who was double jabbed had Covid-19 but I never got it (had multiple PCR tests) so I assumed the rate of transmission would be low, also the fact that most of the people there [at the club] would’ve been jabbed helped.”
Leeds University Union told JOE that the wellbeing of students and staff was their “primary concern” and said they are “continually working to make sure all events are as safe as they can be.”
When I asked Billy if he did a PCR test after the club night to be sure he didn’t have Covid-19, he said: “Nah, mainly because if it was positive I didn’t fancy isolating for 10 days, always found that the worst part.” He says he’d do it again, too, especially if the tickets to an event were expensive. “Like LeedsFest requires the same thing,” he said, “I’d 100% fake a negative test for LeedsFest.”
And Billy’s not even the worst of them, according to him at least. “I know a few of my mates who were positive but went to a club in Leeds which doesn’t require tests. They’ve been jabbed once or twice but in their eyes they don’t really see Covid-19 as a big deal. Like if they did have symptoms they said they would’ve stayed away, and same with me, but cause they didn’t they were like ‘you might as well’.”
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Billy and his mates might have been jabbed “once or twice”, but this isn’t reflective of the whole of England. The reason that Boris Johnson proposed vaccine passports for club entry in the first place is because the uptake in vaccinations within the 16-24 age group has stalled.
NHS figures show that 40 per cent of 16-24 year olds haven’t been jabbed once, and only 20 per cent have got both. Hospitals are seeing a rise in admissions in young people suffering from Covid-19, and more than 1 in 20 people aged 16-29 have had Long Covid – that’s higher than the national average. So, now you know why you keep seeing NHS adverts with a Bicep soundtrack on your TV during those Love Island ad breaks.
But vaccines, and the passports they seem likely to bring with them, aren’t a perfect fix. Yes, a vaccine passport might help to keep unvaccinated people out of clubs and get the vaccinated people into them, but it doesn’t guarantee they don’t have Covid-19.
The pingdemic and resulting isolation periods have already threatened to shut down chains of pubs, and it was estimated last week that around 1 in 5 hospitality workers are isolating. Clubs have only just reopened, the worst thing that can happen to them right now is a bunch of their staff testing positive because of some Covid-ridden revellers cheating their way in.
Because of this, many clubbing and nightlife organisations are opposed to the idea of vaccine passports. Not because they are underestimating the risk, but because they don’t trust the government to implement them successfully.
George Fleming, founder of Save Our Scene, a campaign focused on keeping the independent electronic music scene alive during the pandemic, told JOE: “Save Our Scene (SOS) completely understands that the testing system is not watertight and more could be done to ensure it is. It almost feels as though we’re being set up to fail with the current system in place, which could make it easier for the Government to ensure vaccine passports do become mandatory.
“SOS believes the vaccine programme has been incredibly positive so far, however, we are strongly against the idea of vaccine passports becoming mandatory.
“People’s vaccine status should not determine whether they can legally dance or not. It’s absurd. While Covid-19 is still out there, everyone should take a test before going to venues, which I’m pretty certain the majority of which do. We now know that many vaccinated people can still spread the virus, so I’m not sure why taking a test beforehand is no longer going to be suitable for them. It seems a little bit fishy.”
Michael Kill, the CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), is also dubious. “Fulfilling the licensing requirements as an operator in the Night Time Economy is challenging as it is,” he said, “with an array of fake passports and driving licenses being presented to gain entry for people as proof of age.
“We are already hearing internationally that fake testing certification and doctored digital passports are being used, and are being sold on the black market, which brings with it huge challenges for the government and business operators if the decision is made to mandate passports.”
A government spokesperson told JOE: “The vast majority of the public have acted responsibly throughout the pandemic to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
“To slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, it is vital that everyone taking a lateral flow or PCR test does so in the appropriate way and registers the correct result.
“With around one in three people with COVID-19 experiencing no symptoms, testing is helping us to keep the virus under control as we cautiously ease restrictions and get back to life as normal.”
Yet as I wobbled out of FOLD at 6.30am on Saturday, I didn’t feel any guilt for what I had done. It made me think of Billy, and whether I’d feel any guilt if I had actually faked it and not even checked if I was negative beforehand.
The basic fact of it is, when something is that easy to cheat, it’s a lot easier to rationalise the guilt. Walking through an open door feels a lot less like trespassing than breaking a window, and the government has well and truly left all the doors open. Let’s just hope they learn from it, lock up, leave a few lights on and BBC Radio 4 playing in the background before they bring the vaccine passports in next.
JOE is not alleging that anyone pictured faked the test or in any other way acted contrary to law, or suggesting any wrongdoing by FOLD. FOLD was contacted by Joe but declined to comment.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.