Friday evening and in a massive dockside warehouse in Liverpool, 3,000 people are partying like it’s… well, like it’s anytime from before March 2020.
There are DJs, strobe lights and £5 cans of Red Stripe. There are no masks or bubbles. There is very much – like absolutely – no social distancing.
And it is all entirely legal.
This experimental rave – the first since the Covid-19 pandemic started last year – is one of two being held here at the city’s Bramley-Moore Dock this weekend as part of government research assessing how large-scale events could be run safely in our new coronavirus world.
It is, safe to say, almost certainly the first time in UK history thousands of people have been implicitly encouraged to get smashed off their chops in the name of public health research.
“Everyone here is helping us to build our knowledge in creating a health safety net which will ultimately enable everyone across the country to get back to enjoying themselves,” says Professor Iain Buchan, the Liverpool University scientist who is (a) leading the research and (b) probably the only person here today in shirt, suit and tie. “It’s exciting to see people getting the chance to have that important human contact again.”
A glance around. “I must say, it’s one of the most peculiar laboratories I have ever worked in,” he adds. “This is down and dirty public health. It’s a joy to see it.”
There’s much here that’s a throwback to a pre-coronavirus world: Day-Glo-heavy outfits, crowding at the bar and the odd lad – God bless them – already staggering about by about 5pm. Festival toilets remain as grim in the middle of a global pandemic, it can be confirmed, as they are at any other time.
But there are differences too. Everyone here today has had to test negative in a lateral flow test before arriving, while no cash is being accepted to reduce potential transmission. On site, plastic screens separate bar staff from revellers, and hand sanitiser stations are everywhere – and being well used. No one can see them but dotted around the place are dozens of monitors analysing airflow and sensors detecting people’s movement.
Those will allow Professor Buchan’s team to look at pockets of stale air and crowd bottlenecks where coronavirus could potentially spread. From that data, a blueprint will be drawn up enabling similar venues across the country to reduce their own risk of becoming a Covid hotspot.
“We cannot, as a society, keep everything in lockdown because that creates its own harm in terms of the economy, livelihoods, mental health, our entire social fabric,” says Professor Buchan. “So we need to make judgement calls on how we begin to safely reopen. Events like today will allow us to gather evidence and become better informed when making those calls.”
And of the attendees themselves? Thrilled to be here and no mistake.
This may be government-approved, science-sanctioned, £39-a-ticket raving – officially it’s part of something called the Events Research Programme – but, given it’s been organised by legendary club Circus and features DJ Yousef and The Blessed Madonna, those here have no qualms about going large.
“Boris – top man,” one shouts at me. “Don’t quote that. He’s a w**ker really.” And he’s off, arm round a mate, bucket hat slopping sideways, powering into the dance pit.
“Just walking round the corner earlier and seeing the queues and the crowds,” says another, Ethan Jolly, a 21-year-old student in the city. “I’d forgot how that felt. That anticipation you’re feeling when you’re about to get into a club and you know you’re going to have the best time – just unbelievable. I’ve missed it.”
Only people with a registered Liverpool City Region address could apply for tickets as part of the safety precautions. “I’ve been doing a lot of flexing to my friends who don’t live here,” says Jolly. “Getting a lot of jealousy in the WhatsApp groups.”
He’s with Chess Morgan, 19, and also a student. “I keep telling my friends back home I’m doing it for them,” she says waving a plastic glass of vodka. “I’m doing it for science, obviously.”
Has it felt different to how it used to?
“A little bit but not much,” she says. “People keep bumping into me or crowding around and I’m like, you can’t do that! And then I’m like, wait, yes, you can. Bump into me! It’s like a weight has been lifted. Like you can relax again.”
What else are people feeling? Delight at being able to hug strangers; euphoria at dressing up for something beyond a Zoom call or pub beer garden; hopeful that this will be the start of a summer of such events. The phrase “getting messy” is bandied about a whole lot.
“It’s quite daunting actually,” says David Pito, another student originally from Northern Ireland. “What we’re doing is the exact opposite of what we’ve been told to do for a year so I was kind of nervous coming in, but everyone’s been tested so I feel pretty safe.”
It was, he said, his first proper night out all academic year. “You can’t really make up for that in one day,” the 21-year-old said raising his can. “But I’ll be giving it a good go.”