Author: Mark Summers

A flurry of announcements around the UK’s construction sector in recent days will give the industry hope that a sustainable return to work against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic will soon be possible.

Many in the sector will reflect that this clarity on their operations is long overdue, and comes after a period of what one of the industry’s main mouthpieces has called “significant confusion”.

The announcement by the UK government on 15 April that construction work can “truly begin” on the high-profile HS2 rail-link comes just days after Spain allowed construction sites to re-open as part of the first set of measures easing its nationwide lockdown.

On the same day contractors were being told they could put shovels in the ground on HS2, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published the latest version of its Site Operating Procedures (SOP) – a set of guidelines designed to let construction firms ensure a safe operating environment for their workers in light of the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Procedures for safe working

The new guidance sets out further detail including the fact that firms are expected to actively monitor their employees’ compliance with government advice; that workers with no option but to share transport with colleagues should travel in the same group of individuals and with the windows open where possible; and that where workers cannot work and maintain a 2-metre distance from each other, measures should be taken to mitigate the effects of this.

The latest advice builds previous on SOP guidance issued by the CLC and taken together contractors now have a set of procedures governing everything from lifts (“stairs should be used in preference”) to lunch (“workers should be encouraged to bring their own food… and avoid using local shops”).

Constructing confusion

Contractors may now see a route back to work on key sites after a difficult few weeks.

Construction was not included on the initial list of industries which the UK government specified would have to close as COVID-19 began to make its malign presence felt across the economy. However, the government’s general edict that employees should travel only to carry “essential” work, together with concerns among workers themselves about the safety of their sites, ultimately saw many projects shuttered in any event.

For a time at the start of the lockdown period was hard to discern agreement within the cabinet, let alone beyond it, on what action construction workers should take – Health Secretary Matt Hancock said workers who could not work from home should go to work to “keep the country running”, while Michael Gove indicated only construction workers engaged in work “critical to the economy” should go in.

Before long Housing Minister Robert Jenrick clarified that work in people’s homes was permitted if it could be carried out safely – but former cabinet ministers such as Iain Duncan Smith were still calling for only construction workers engaged on “emergency requirements” to be at work. 

The CLC noted in a statement that there was “significant confusion at the moment, given that different things have been said by different people, and this is very unhelpful”. However, the industry body itself acknowledged that it did little to help when it subsequently issued a version of the SOP guidelines which stated that work should not be carried out unless workers could distance themselves from each other by two metres at all times. The advice was withdrawn just hours later after stakeholders across the industry pointed out that in practice such a rule would close nearly every site in the country. Add in geographical inconsistencies – Scotland has taken a harder line on what constitutes permitted construction work than elsewhere – and it has been a deeply challenging environment for the construction sector to navigate.

A path back to work?

Public Health England (PHE) has included advice specific to the construction industry in its guidelines on how to successfully implement social distancing in the workplace. Crucially, the sector is told that staff are to keep 2 metres apart “as much as possible”.

Other examples of best practice set out by PHE include the following:

  • Workers should avoid skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact;
  • Groups of workers should be kept together in teams as small as possible and the mixing of team members should be avoided;
  • Staff should wash their hands each time before getting into “enclosed machinery” (such as diggers) and every time they get out.

The CLC’s latest procedures include further detail, which effectively calls for each contractor to undertake a detailed review of their operating practices, to include everything from entry and egress to their sites, staggering working hours to ease the burden on public transport and adding hand-washing facilities across sites.

The above represents an increased regulatory – and likely financial – burden for contractors, but most will reflect that this pales into insignificance of the pressures likely to accrue due to any prolonged stoppage of work.

Counting the cost

If the various stakeholders in the UK construction industry have found it difficult to find common ground in recent weeks, there is one thing on which all parties can agree – the cost to the industry of the Coronavirus pandemic is already huge, and will increase precipitously if sites remain shuttered in the coming weeks and months.

One key bellwether, the IHS Markit purchasing manager’s index for UK construction, has already shown a fall to its lowest level since April 2009 – and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply has noted that the virus has already caused the closure of construction sites and redundancies for builders “on a frightening scale”.

Often even the largest contractors don’t have a large bank of tangible assets on which they can secure further lending, with many critically reliant on the monthly income from their various projects.

Little wonder many are keen to seize any opportunity to get back to work – or continue to make every possible effort to avoid halting work altogether.

“Remobilising sites is expensive, as is mothballing them, which is why so many businesses want to continue operating but with lower productivity to ensure social distancing,” the chief executive of the National Federation of Builders has noted.

It remains to be seen if the industry’s major players consider the conditions right to get back to work – contractors rely on their subcontractors and supply chain, and many smaller firms have taken the decision to sit things out until the crisis abates. Not to mention the fact that any return to work will be reliant on gaining the confidence of construction workers that modified working conditions are sufficient to safeguard their health.

But the symbolic step taken by the government to allow work to proceed on HS2, coupled with a more detailed set of procedures on site safety is likely to make the construction sector among the first to return to work when the lockdown is eased.

With 2.4 million employees, and a 6 per cent share of the UK’s total economic output, it’s in everyone’s interests that this happens as soon as it can.

For more information or advice please contact our Construction Team.

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