Planning, vigilance, responsiveness: the live events industry cannot ignore these points raised by the Manchester Arena Inquiry

More than four years on from the devastating attack at the Manchester Arena, an inquiry into the tragedy is bringing public safety at live events sharply into public awareness.

Calls to increase security measures at live sports and entertainment venues are growing louder, with time of the essence as owners and operators of stadia, clubs, festivals and theatres plan their re-emergence from the forced inactivity of the past 16 months.

Although industry bosses hope for a speedy return to events in pre-pandemic style, the recent inquiry, along with coming legislation around events security, should serve as a wake-up call to the events industry that a new era of public safety and security is about to begin.

The stringent security requirements campaigners have sought since 22 lives were lost and hundreds more injured on the night of 22 May 2017, faced setbacks due to the pandemic, but will come into effect when the Protect Duty – new anti-terrorism legislation, also known as “Martyn’s Law” – is implemented.

What is the Protect Duty? Why does it matter now?

The Protect Duty is designed to prevent a tragedy like the Manchester Arena attack occurring again, by ensuring the public is better protected from a “multifaceted, diverse and continually evolving” terror threat.

It demands a proactive response from venue owners and operators, who will need to bring in stricter security measures and will need to demonstrate that the threat and risk factors around the event are thoroughly considered, with appropriate mitigations taken forward.

The consultation, conducted by the UK Government, aims to reach individuals who own or manage publicly accessible locations across a wide range of premises, from sports stadia, festivals, and gigs to schools and universities to transport hubs.

Meanwhile, the events industry is optimistically preparing for a late-summer or autumn return to full-scale events, heralded by successful pilots in venues such as Wembley and Ascot.

Upcoming events are likely to require increased health safety measures, such as temperature checks, Covid testing, and external queueing, leading security industry experts to caution event organisers not to lose sight of the threat of terror attacks, but rather to take a comprehensive approach to keep eventgoers as safe as possible.

Planners should work closely with security experts to develop multi-disciplinary strategies, with a strong focus on communications between staff, on-site security and local police, taking into account the current national threat level of ‘SUBSTANTIAL’, meaning that a terrorist attack in the UK is “likely”.

Indeed, the discrepancy between the national terror threat level at the time of the Manchester Arena incident, which was SEVERE in May 2017, and the preparedness of the security staff was deemed a significant factor which led to the bomber exploiting the circumstances on the night of the attack.

What else did the Manchester Arena attack inquiry reveal?

The first stage of the inquiry, which is chaired by Sir John Saunders, highlights several ‘missed opportunities’ in the security arrangements for detecting and stopping the bomber, Salman Abedi.

A lack of preparedness, poor communication regarding suspicious behaviour as well as insufficient sharing of information between security teams resulted in poor responsiveness as the emergency unfolded, according to the report.

The first stage of the inquiry set out a number of key action steps that venue operators should follow when hosting events. These include:

  • Implementation of the forthcoming Protect Duty, with stringent requirements for event premises
  • Continuous reminders to security staff and others whose job includes being alert to the current terror threat level
  • Full briefings for those responsible for security at every event about the level of risk of terrorist attack
  • Any and all suspicious behaviour by the public should be noted and reported promptly for investigation purposes
  • The need for communication, coordination and co-operation between those responsible for keeping the public safe

Who will need to increase their security?

At the moment, private and public owners of venues currently have no obligation to act on advice from specialist counter-terrorism officers about threats of a terror attack and how to reduce the risk.

However, the Protect Duty will provide certainty that considerations into security are being undertaken, and will potentially affect a wide range of premises, such as sports stadia, festivals, hotels, pubs, casinos, high streets, retail centres, schools & universities, places of worship, parks, transport hubs and many more.

Given the range of health checks and Covid-safety measures which will almost certainly still be a reality of live events for the foreseeable future, along with calls to intensify anti-terrorism security, it is incumbent upon the venue operators around the country to initiate fresh assessments of their pre-pandemic health and security planning, since those plans are extremely unlikely to suitably protect against the threats faced today.

Indeed, according to counterterrorism.com, “any pre-existing anti-terror risk assessment could be out of date, and therefore, carrying out a new assessment that considers any changes to the current security landscape is imperative”.

For example, strategies which mitigate the threat of Covid-19 infection, such as external queuing, can inadvertently increase vulnerability to terror threat. Sadly, crowds gathering outside a venue can become the target of would-be vehicle-as-a-weapon (VAW) attackers, who seize on security gaps and can exploit flimsy, incomplete or missing barriers in order to cause damage to property, injury or worse.

A comprehensive approach which demonstrates due diligence on the part of venue operators should include implementing rigorously tested solutions which mitigate threats to public safety in these environments.

As the number of tragic VAW incidents has grown over the past five years, so too has public awareness around the issue. Nervousness that a public space will be targeted in an attack can have an adverse impact on consumer confidence, causing people to think twice about attending live events or venturing into open spaces for fear of harm.

Incorporating solutions such as pedestrian permeable barriers – which allow walkers, cyclists, prams and wheelchairs to pass through with ease, but guards against the ingress of a hostile vehicle – can increase attendees’ feelings of security, while providing a cost-effective method of crowd protection as part of a complete large-event security strategy.

It should not deal a “fatal blow” to the events industry

Although campaigners have been fighting for legislation requiring more stringent security measures for years, many venue operators will likely be caught out by the new requirements and perceive that the cost associations will mean another blow to the industries of live entertainment and, by extension, tourism – both of these having been hit hard by the Coronavirus crisis.

There is indication, however, that Protect Duty security measures are meant to be “reasonable and not overly burdensome”. The language used here – part of the consultation process – strongly suggests that legislators would prefer not to further debilitate these industries in this precarious period of regrowth.

Solutions which are effective, but which are not cost-prohibitive, will be key to striking just the right arrangement – one where security measures are not so stringent that they detract from eventgoers’ experience or are so investment heavy that they make running a live event unprofitable and unsustainable, but robust enough to effectively and comprehensively guard against terrorist activity and lead to a swift and efficient response should any threat develop.

Although there is certainly a daunting task ahead of venue operators, security sector partners and crowd management training and equipment providers can be an excellent resource of expertise and support. As in our own business, many who specialise in crowd safety solutions have grown used to deploying existing equipment for the purpose of social distancing or to create safe, outdoor dining spaces.

This has created a bank of expertise around the overlap of crowd safety/crowd management and Covid-safety. We can also be confident that as an industry we have overcome a steep learning curve and evolved to become more flexible and adaptable in response to fast-moving shifts in government-set Covid guidelines. Across the sectors of events and security, we should be committed to exchanging expertise so that a return to live events happens smoothly and successfully, and that eventgoers are kept as safe as possible at all times.

The evolution of the live events supply chain is ongoing, as we rise to meet the challenges and demands that will make live large-scale events possible.

Being successful in this doesn’t just mean giving people the opportunity to attend the sporting events, festivals and gigs they have been missing, it’s also the ability to help them set aside the stress and worries of the recent past, and to do so confidently and safely.

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