Letter From the Director of Public Health on the challenges of Notting Hill Carnival

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Dear Mr Comfort,

Re: Challenges for Notting Hill Carnival 2020

As we all know, you and your team have been busy planning for Carnival for some time. Both Kensington and Chelsea Council and Westminster City Council have been busy working with you and partners, including the organising committee, on the basis that the biggest event of the summer in West London will go ahead. It is what we had always hoped for.

However, with the global pandemic still impacting every single one of us, and details on how the UK and London will exit the current lockdown situation, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Carnival can happen. Even at the most recent Strategic Partners meeting the London Ambulance service and NHS in particular all expressed issues of not being able to put in adequate resources at a time when the whole of London is stretched to its absolute limit.

As we continue to monitor the situation daily, I thought best to write to you now to outline the concerns and factors from a public health point of view, to aid the decision making process in the next few days. It is important to me, that the organisers of the Carnival have all the facts to hand and I hope you will accept my professional advice given the extremely exceptional circumstances we are in.

Firstly, may I say personally how wonderful the Notting Hill Carnival is. It always brings joy, happiness, vitality, integration, jobs and much more to the communities of this part of London and beyond. Under normal circumstances this is a unique event to promote the wellbeing of all concerned and would be wholeheartedly supported from a public health point of view.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 puts the Carnival in a very different light. From a public health point of view, going ahead with Carnival this year would cause several key issues, some of which will be a danger for those who wish to attend or take part, and a danger to people that already live in our communities. I list them below, but in some ways, considering the times we are in, the final decision on Carnival should be made with common sense as well the science. I would expect the organisers to see a benefit in making an early decision. Many events around the UK have found a digital or ‘own home’ alternative – it won’t be the same of course, but a Carnival in our own living rooms is something I would support.

On the public health front, my concerns are four-fold:

  • The Coronavirus is already established in the community. It is a new virus so, as we know, nobody is immune. It has no cure yet, and while the majority of people who get it will survive it, many will need intensive care and some, sadly, will die. The Chief Medical Officer made it clear that we do not expect to see a vaccine in use this year. These are the stark facts of the situation
  • London has been in the peak of this current wave for a while, and is worst affected in the UK, and we have only just started to see the number of infections start to come down. This is only possible because of the lockdown and British citizens respecting the social distancing rules. The vast majority of the population is still not immune to the virus and it is almost certain that social distancing will need to be in place way beyond the end of this summer and the scheduled weekend for Carnival.
  • Carnival celebrates Caribbean culture and brings together people from all walks of life and in particular people from black and ethnic minority communities. Observational data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, shows that a third of covid-19 patients admitted to critical care units are from an ethnic minority background. Whilst the reasons behind this are not clear yet, it is an observation that cannot be ignored. 
  • Finally, and most critically, if the Carnival were to go ahead, even with a fraction of the numbers usually seen, there will be hundreds of thousands of people not only in very close proximity but also dancing and breathing heavily on each other, thus significantly increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

If the Carnival were to go ahead the virus will spread even more, many people will be badly affected, and the stark reality is that lives will be lost. I invite the committee and partners to reflect on this and make the right decision for the event itself and for the benefit of the community in which the event takes place. 

Yours sincerely,

Houda Al Sharifi

Director of Public Health