The government maintains that the construction industry should keep working so long as its workers can maintain social distancing. But building firms are rapidly deciding that that is the wrong call and are making their own decisions to stay safe at home.
And it appears that the Construction Industry Council, which represents the industry’s professional bodies, agrees with the FMB – or at least its chief executive does.
Research conducted by the FMB in the past couple of days among 380 member firms has found that 60% have already ceased between 76% and 100% of their work. Of those, 80% are in the domestic repair, renovation and maintenance sector.
FMB chief executive Brian Berry said: “Most FMB members have already taken the lead and ceased the majority of their work. It is almost impossible to follow Public Health England’s social distancing advice on many sites, and it would therefore be safer to close them.
“However, the government must ensure that these firms don’t face a cliff-edge while doing the right thing and should ensure that grants of £25,000 are made available and that ample support is extended to the self-employed who represent 37% of construction jobs.”
He added: “No one should have to choose between feeding their family and protecting their health and yet that is the position many builders currently find themselves in. There is a clear appetite for greater government support among builders, as demonstrated by the fact that 80% would apply if grants were available. Later today, the chancellor must avoid any halfway house measures and ensure that he delivers equal support for the self-employed as those on PAYE. This package needs to cover the breadth of people who are self-employed not just a select few.”
According to the FMB, 63% of its members believe that the government is not doing enough to support them – 80% (303 firms) said they would apply for the £25,000 grant if it were made available to them; currently it is only available to retail, leisure and hospitality firms.
Meanwhile Construction Industry Council chief executive Graham Watts has posted a blog also arguing that construction sites “should only remain open if the work is critical”. He takes a more nuanced approach, however, pointing out that it is generally not possible just to shut the gates and go home.
“It would be incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to close; but it is also incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to remain open,” he writes. “It is not an issue with a binary solution.”
He says: “Construction sites cannot just be left. They need to be prepared for closure and left in a way that is safe and secure. Work is being done today on guidance about how to shut down sites safely.
“So, the bottom line is that construction sites should only remain open if they are critical and they meet these conditions. If it is impossible to meet the 2m rule for example then they should not remain open unless it causes an unsafe or dangerous situation for them to close or the project is deemed to be critical to immediate societal need and then this needs to be carefully managed and risk-assessed.
“We are looking for clarity from government and a strong central message. CIC is working with government through the Construction Leadership Council to try to achieve this clarity.”
Graham Watts has produced a list of what he reckons is critical activity that ought to continue for issues of public safety:
- Make good unsafe buildings/dangerous structures –District Surveyors need powers to instruct emergency work to be done to make them safe if any occur – and a hastily abandoned site might just lead to a dangerous structure occurring.
- Structural inspections for subsidence / movement to determine risk
- Structural and roofing problems, loose tiles/chimney stacks, weathering
- All general building control work (both LABC and AIs) for nationally important buildings / facilities, e.g. NHS estate, GPs, etc.
- Drainage works / maintenance etc – important to avoid any increased public health problems in this respect
- Fire safety inspections
- Requirement for maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment to meet fire safety legislation – even if buildings are not occupied
- Ongoing need for fire risk assessments, both to meet legislation and new circumstances in buildings
- Remedial work required to remove unsafe ACM cladding etc.
- Glazing replacement
- Locksmithing / lock replacement
- Gas safety work/ suspected gas leaks
- Electrical safety work/ electrical failures
- Flood remediation (especially to homes hit by recent floods)
- Plumbing and heating failures including loss of heating/condensation problems/hot water services
- Emergency Leaking/ flooding
- Health risks associated with blocked drainage/sewerage systems
- Water companies – remedial / emergency work to buildings and assets that are crucial to the supply of clean water,
- New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply chain of vital NHS equipment (for example where manufacturers are building units to make ventilators),
- Factories that are making anything required to combat the virus (e.g. a new hand sanitiser factory is under construction);
- Food supply chain – essential new builds or maintenance on existing buildings
- Extra warehouse space for food distribution by online platforms (to cope with massively increased demand)
- New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply of medicines,
- Essential maintenance on morgues, funeral parlours, and crematoriums
- Essential maintenance and remediation across the health sector
- Installation/maintenance technicians providing services to key sectors – health, power etc
- Emergency callouts, safety checks and essential work in care homes
- Ongoing supervision and security measures
- Sites where anti-terrorism considerations need to take precedence over other concerns – eg Palace of Westminster.
- Urgent works on emergency service properties other than health - police, fire, for example
- Unsafe infrastructure – if a lorry strikes a bridge during the shutdown, for example, then work may be needed to make safe the affected structure
- Bridge inspection and maintenance
- Dam inspection and maintenance
- Maintaining key national infrastructure: power stations and grid, motorways, railways, utilities etc.
- Repair and maintenance of telecommunications, energy waste and water – these are vital to work from home
- R&D facilities, where related to vaccine development or virus treatment
- Work on factories that make materials that are vital to all elements on this list
He emphasises that his list is not exhaustive and other safety-critical work needs to be added to the above list.