One Step Beyond! … the Dutch Covid festi test rabbits and guinea pigs!


Alan Dearling reflects on possible festi-and music/arts event futures for later in 2021

A day and a week are a long, long time in the current government lockdowns and Covid world orders. With a ‘Third Wave’ of infections, new Covid strains, new lockdowns sweeping across Europe, and beyond in the Indian sub-continent, South America and Africa, there’s no single silver bullet. No silver vaccine spoon. Few silver-linings to shield the realities that are just around the Hope Street corner… The options and possibilities are beguiling, diverse and potentially divisive. It all seems a long, distant, far-off time ago that the first lockdown occurred and there was talk of the ‘wartime, blitz spirit’…and ‘communities over-brimming with care and kindness’.

Local communities, societies, and entire countries are riven, split, divided on issues of personal freedoms and safety concerns. No easy options. Certainly no safe ones apart from a lifelong curfew…

Covid passports and certificates, many more tests, more vaccinations, more tracings, a traffic-light system for world travel and more quarantines all look set to become elements of the next New Normal(s). And with a wide range of high and medium profile sports, music and arts events on the world horizons, more and more ‘experiments’ are set to take place. They satisfy a range of political and social goals – opening up society and the economy – allowing people to mix and have some fun – but they are inherently risky. At least one or two steps beyond many of the current ‘health safety’ rules of social-distancing, face-coverings and travel bans and restrictions. Likely changes also allow governments off the proverbial ‘hook’ – enabling them to shift responsibility onto citizens – ordinary people – in essence, part of a pass-the-blame-game, perhaps.

The Netherlands seem to have been at the forefront of the social experiments to test the potential for ‘safe’ festivals and larger public gatherings.

“For many of those lucky enough to score a golden ticket to Biddinghuizen this past weekend, they say that if this is the new normal, they’ll take it. ‘I’m having the time of my life,’ says 52-year-old Tinneke from Rotterdam, one of the older attendees. ‘Everybody’s happy. We miss this. We want to be free. We want to dance and hug and drink beer and just have a good time. That’s what life’s all about, right?’ ”

From the

I gather that the Biddinghuizen event was part paid for by the Dutch government to test the safety, or perhaps the ‘efficacy’ of such an event. Tickets were limited to, I think, 1,500 per day for each of the two days. Everyone was tested for a negative Covid result before entry; and participants wore motion sensors – and were meant to wear face coverings – but most did not. Those same participants were due to be tested two weeks after the festi. It’s proving hard to find out the ‘findings’ and lessons learned. Here’s the most informative data I’ve located at this source:

“The (Back to Live) festival was the seventh and final in a series of Fieldlab-organised indoor and outdoor events put on to test Covid safety measures. More than 6,200 people participated in the previous six experiments, of whom 41 tested positive asymptomatically beforehand. Five people tested positive afterwards, although it is unclear whether their infection was contracted at an event or elsewhere, e.g. through infection by a housemate.”

Andreas Voss, is the senior Fieldlab researcher. Here is what was reported in ‘Netherlands News Live’:

“According to Voss, with pre-testing in the summer it should be possible to organize concerts, theater and cinema visits on a limited scale with certain measures. ‘If the numbers are going down again and the threat of the third wave is less, then this should certainly be safely possible.’

Voss is a bit more skeptical about festivals; the investigation has yet to show whether this is safely possible. A festival, says Voss, is more risky because of the large number of movements and contact moments. After all, more contact moments mean a greater chance of contamination. On the other hand, according to the researcher, it does help that festivals are often outdoors and there is therefore a lot of ventilation.”

As for festivals scheduled for 2021, Boom in Portugal and Primavera Sound in Spain have now been postponed to 2022. The UK’s massive Reading and Leeds events are still due to happen. Download, Glasto and Belladrum are cancelled, postponed or transmogrified into Virtual online events. Transmit has been moved to September.  Personally, I still have three festies in the UK where I should be working: Kozfest, Devon; Barnstomper in Dorset, and Southdowns in Sussex. I’m currently not taking on any commitments outside of the UK. Fingers tightly crossed. Nothing is cast-iron certain in these strange times.

As far as I can see it, the key questions for festies, for safety and financial viability (and fun!) are:

  1. Travel to and from the events
  2. Face coverings
  3. Testing
  4. Vax
  5. Social distancing

Plus, for organisers, there’s no insurance available, and all the issues around safeguarding, security and routines to ensure health, safety and personal freedoms. It’s a potential legal, moral, social, ethical and health – nightmare. And then there’s Brexit…

The BBC’s Netherlands’ correspondent is Anna Holligan. Here’s the report that she posted after the Dutch festi:

Anna also appeared on a BBC Radio Scotland special feature about the implications of the Dutch experiments. She commented how it felt very strange, “stepping outside of society” with 9,000 new Covid cases per day still being reported in the Netherlands.  With ‘kissing, dancing’ and ‘partying like 2019’, the Dutch government was essentially paying for science to generate some Covid data results – even if it meant that the punters at the festi were test ‘bunnies’! Naked Scientist, Cambridge-based virologist, Chris Smith, was also on the same radio programme. He said, “We need to prove that vaccinations are keeping us safe”, adding that he was “optimistic…but it’s not just as simple as testing”.

Scots dub-vixen, dj, Phoebe Inglis-Holmes, was the third expert voice on the Radio Scotland programme. Phoebe said that she was soon meant to be dj-ing in Croatia, adding: “I cannot wait to get back…I’m looking past the health issues…there just needs to be a simple test then we can have entire festivals from New Zealand to Holland every weekend.” She also pointed out that Scotland was the only country where background music in pubs had been banned!

But, for the Dutch (and in the UK), it is part of a much bigger plan for sports, arts and music events this summer, including, I gather their hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest with a crowd of 3,000. And here is a link to the advance publicity and debate around the Dutch Eurovision 2021 in May:

After the Biddinghuizen test festi, I put out a request on my Facebook page for feedback from friends who live around Amsterdam. I’ve not had as much back from the Netherlands as I’d hoped, but here are a couple of perceptive, interesting, and worrying comments about the rise of far right Nazis under the ‘Freedom’ banner, which has also motivated some on the left. They reflect my own experience from folk I know well, respect, but don’t necessarily agree with, who are involved with UK and European festivals and gigs. Here’s a fairly typical response from one festi-organiser I’m friends with: Bloody knew it They can shove their vaccinations where the sun don’t shine.” This opposition, much of it increasingly volatile, is a growing phenomenon – particularly in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, the USA and now in the UK, where the personal freedom issues – to not be vaccinated or wear face coverings, or take tests or give up personal data, are all becoming bound-up in the rules and regulations potentially involved in the gradual re-opening of pubs, venues and events.

Aja Waalwijk

“I wasn’t there nor read much about it if it comes to tests afterwards. I’ll be alert though if it comes to some info on that. In the Netherlands especially the right wing nationalists are demonstrating for ‘freedom’. They even want to organize a demonstration against the mayor of Amsterdam. Unfortunately they won many votes during the recent election. These voters don’t seem to realize that their anti-covid measures are just a smoke curtain for a more nationalist and thus e.g. racist agenda.”

Ruchama Noorda

“Yes there were several test concerts and a football game not really interesting and then a lot of protests against covid measures everywhere, people marching for a very unclear concept of freedom hand in hand with neo-nazis.”

The dream-image, the hope, or, the mirage of parties, music, dancing and fun is in lots of people’s peripheral vision. The current restrictions are incredibly debilitating for mental health and social cohesion. My friend, Aja Waalwijk is an artist in Amsterdam, but a citizen of the free-cultural spaces of the  world. He has been producing a series of Covid-related images. This one is entitled:


Everyone’s No Man’s Land (Daily Life-Line):

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