How to Save the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe.


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The 2021 Edinburgh Fringe can and should go ahead. It can take place regardless of how prevalent COVID-19 still is on 6 August, the date that this year’s Fringe is due to start. Moreover, although mass-vaccinations are by now dispelling most of the shadow that is hanging over the Fringe, there should have been a concerted ambition to make the Fringe viable even before these vaccines had been approved.

The 2021 Fringe can be guaranteed through a systematic use of COVID-detector dogs. A recent pilot at Helsinki Airport has shown that dogs that are trained to detect COVID-19 can replicate the accuracy of PCR tests, albeit with a far greater speed and cost-effectiveness. Although the vaccines that the UK has procured could well rescue every area of Scotland’s economy by the early summer, let us morbidly suppose that there are delays and disruptions to the national vaccination programme. In any case, the Fringe without its international visitors amounts to pretty small porridge, and the majority of international Fringegoers are unlikely to have been vaccinated by August. So how could COVID dogs be injected into the festival as a backup plan?

Such dogs would not merely complement the existing security arrangements at the Fringe, but, rather, the entire city centre would be reorganised around their presence. I picture something along the lines of a “Flodden Fringe.” A circular barricade would be erected and it would section off a similar area of the city centre as the old Flodden Wall had done. Importantly, there would be a very limited number of entrance points and here any prospective Fringegoer would have to run the gauntlet of the COVID dogs. If the dogs decided that the applicant was COVID free, then the applicant could continue on unmolested. The Fringe’s interior would be accordingly relieved of the normal “social distancing” and contact-tracing measures; the Flodden Fringe would be in effect a certified COVID-free bubble.

What would happen to those hapless Fringegoers who the COVID dogs had rejected? Would it not be tremendously unfair if somebody had flown all the way from New York, only to be left stranded on the rough side of the COVID dogs? Well, there is a lot of disappointment and heartbreak at any typical Fringe, so I am not sure that such a scenario would be so out-of-place. But I am attracted by the idea of setting up an alternative “consolation” Fringe for COVID-19 sufferers, out in, say, Inch Park.

Comedians and musicians who had contracted COVID-19 themselves could perform here. Bar workers who had contracted COVID-19 could pour the pints. This Fringe would be essentially a forlorn quarantine camp that was trying to mimic the official proceedings as best it could. Individuals could leave only once the dogs had confirmed that they were clear.  

What would happen to individuals who lived within the Fringe zone and who had contracted COVID-19 during the Fringe (this takes it for granted that visitors to the Fringe could not stay in Edinburgh’s core, which would lead to a substantial redistribution of the festival’s revenues to the suburbs). Basically, in the weeks leading up to the Fringe the state would have to rigorously enforce the Test, Trace and Isolate system that is meant to be the legal default anyway. The illiberalism of this does not greatly appeal to me and one shudders to think of the stridency of the ensuing NIMBYism, which is operatic enough even whenever somebody proposes building any new hotel in the centre. The thuggish Hogmanay that was organised by the private company Underbelly in 2019, with city-centre residents being discouraged from holding parties in their own homes, would have put in a lot of the exploratory legal groundwork for the Flodden Fringe. 

The UK Border Force claims that it takes “eight weeks” to train a detector dog; Police Dogs Scotland puts the number at “thirteen weeks.” At Helsinki Airport, where COVID dogs have been recently getting frisky, NBC’s TODAY reports that the animals can take “a few days” to train. Many extra weeks would need to be added to the preparations for a Flodden Fringe, however, because the existing infrastructure for training dogs would be essentially overwhelmed by an apocalyptic spike in demand.

Let us imagine that it was possible to crunch down access to the Fringe to five entrance points: the Mound, Canongate, the Grassmarket, Chambers Street, and George Square. In reality there would be all sorts of practical difficulties to this cauterisation, but let us run with the general principle for now. This assumes the existence of a Venetian-style internal, pedestrianised zone, albeit one that (unlike in Venice) could be periodically opened up to mechanised transport in order for goods to be delivered and rubbish to be collected.

There were four dogs operating at Helsinki Airport, where they were reportedly processing “thousands” of passengers and taking about a minute to go over each one. At the 2019 Fringe, an average of 120,500 people had purchased a ticket each day. If we knock off those who will be deterred from travelling in 2021 due to COVID-19, or who will be disheartened by the prospect of the Fringe during a pandemic, then perhaps we would end up with eighty or ninety thousand souls.

As a starting point, I propose ten dogs at each of our five entranceways at all times. The flipside of treating the Fringe’s interior as an immaculate, COVID-free zone is that the queues outside might degenerate into a squash where COVID-19 becomes easily transmissible. These queues will indeed need to move at quite a clip, to avoid them growing miles long.

If admittance to the Fringe ran from eleven in the morning to eleven at night, this would create four shifts in which successive teams of COVID-dogs would work for three hours apiece. Or if this was too onerous for them, then these shifts could be broken down further, with the dogs coming back and forth throughout the day. Two hundred dogs per day would be therefore utilised overall. But of course some dogs could become sick, not least if they were infected by the samples that they were processing. Let us conclude, therefore, that we will need around two hundred and fifty dogs, with a handler being assigned to each one (the possibility of vaccinating the dogs might remove the requirement for a surplus of this size).

The go-to organisation for training dogs here is the Police Scotland Dog Unit, with a key advantage being the absence of any independent regulation over the service. For example, if the state wishes to introduce a COVID vaccine then it needs another, independent part of the state to approve it. With police dogs, however, all that is seemingly required to field an animal is that the Dog Unit declares it to be sufficiently trained. Their SOP has the musical acoustics of an echo chamber, in stating that, “Police Dogs will be trained in accordance with the requirements of the Police Dog Training & Care Manual and the National Police Dog Assessment Model (NPDAM) found within the Police Dog Manual of Guidance.”

Clearly, if detector dogs were trained for the Fringe in the manner that I have outlined, this would be the largest population of such animals that the UK had ever assembled. There were “about 50 drugs dogs in Scotland” in 2018, according to the Dog Unit, whilst the UK Border Force possesses seventy-four detector dogs and in 2017 the MoD could call upon forty-two. The Dog Unit works with donated animals but it is probably unlikely that over two hundred dogs of a suitable disposition would be freed up in the months before the Fringe. The solution to this shortfall is liable to be costly, with either the compulsory nationalisation of foxhound packs or with expensive public appeals for the most obliging animals to be submitted. A body of eligible dogs undoubtedly exists; it is more a question of how they can be liberated for public use when they currently hold the status of private property.

Then, the Fringe would need to recruit two hundred and fifty trainers and house them for the duration of the festival. Next, there are the kennels, which should be spacious enough to prevent cross-contamination in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the animals. Such an outbreak would in effect cancel the Fringe altogether.

The programme at Helsinki Airport had cost £274,000 which means that, if no savings were accrued from the economies of scale, the price of COVID-detection dogs at the Fringe would be at least £17 million. To put this figure in perspective, the Centre for Economics and Business Research reckons that cancelling the 2020 Fringe had cost Edinburgh over a billion pounds. Moreover, £17 million remains alluringly slim when compared to the billions of pounds that have been spent on individual, manmade COVID tests.

“Picking winners” is often a term of abuse since, when it comes to technological responses to an issue such as a pandemic, it is neoliberal wisdom that the state will unfailingly pick the wrong ones. In the latest COVID-19 vaccines, the state certainly appears to be onto a sound winner. A COVID-detector dog training programme would nonetheless offer considerable public confidence that this year’s Fringe can go ahead. And even if such a programme was abandoned before its work was done, the dogs could be still deployed at the airports and stations that serve the Fringe and elsewhere.