Concern about the EA London COVID protocol

As an initial disclaimer, being located in Melbourne Australia, which is currently strict lockdown, I have neither the intention nor the ability of attending the upcoming EA Global London conference. I am also not involved in any way in its organisation, nor am I a public health expert. That being said, like many in the EA community I have been following with unease recent COVID developments, in particular the emergence of the delta strain and resurgence of the virus in places like the UK, US, and Israel. Of particular concern to me are risks such as ongoing spread of the virus from the vaccinated to the unvaccinated, tail risks of ‘long covid’ symptoms, and the prospect of the emergence of additional novel strains.

Given this background, I was intrigued to see what safeguards were being taken to limit the spread of COVID at the first EA global conference in about two years. Upon reading the EA London COVID protocol, however, I was both disappointed and concerned. I will summarise some of my concerns below.

I find the policy unclear

The first dot point states ‘We require all guests to be fully vaccinated’, but then according to the second dot point attendees will not be admitted without ‘proof of vaccination or an officially logged negative lateral flow test’. So which is it? Do attendees have to be vaccinated, or is a negative test result sufficient?

In other respects I also find the policy insufficiently clear, such as when it states ‘we are doing our best to ensure that all vendors and contractors will be vaccinated’. Will vendors be vaccinated or not? I understand this may be difficult to organise, but for something this important a more definite policy seems appropriate. Likewise for the remark ‘We are still deciding what to do regarding children’.

My overall impression is that the policy lacks clarity and cohesion, and does not give the appearance of being as thoroughly considered as I would have expected given such a large and important event in the EA community.

The lack of compulsory masks

According to the World Health Organisation: ‘If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask...’ Despite high vaccination rates, COVID is still spreading in the UK. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that in the UK, universal mask usage by all vaccinated persons would prevent about 8,000 deaths by the end of 2021.

Given these considerations, why are masks not being made compulsory at the event, at the very least when inside? Even if all guests are vaccinated, they can still spread the virus to other attendees, who can then spread it eventually to unvaccinated persons. The risk is magnified if there are unvaccinated attendees or contractors present. I imagine that the organisers have based their decision to not require masks on some sound basis that I am unaware of (and that is also not explained in the COVID protocol), however in my view requiring masks seems like a very small imposition relative to the potential benefits.

Missing safety measures

There are many aspects of COVID safety that are not even mentioned in the policy. These include measures to promote social distancing, provision of hand sanitising stations, cleaning of public surfaces, or use of QR codes (these are mentioned briefly, but how they will be used at the venue is not explained). While I assume that these measures will be implemented, the fact they are not specified in the policy is concerning.

I find the policy unconvincing

Given these considerations, I do not find the COVID protocol for the EA London event to be adequate or sufficiently reassuring for potential attendees. It lacks even a basic preamble discussing anything about balancing costs versus risks, or a statement that the policy has been carefully developed to ensure the safety of guests and to limit continued community spread of the virus. I assume that these are all the case, but a policy for a large event such as this should in my view make such statements explicitly and back them up with specific details and implementation of best practises for minimising COVID spread.

As someone not directly involved in the conference none of this will affect me personally. Nonetheless, I hope that this article will be of value to those considering whether to attend the event, as well those in the EA community who, like myself, are concerned about the ongoing spread of the virus, and are mindful of what EAs can do to help reduce it.