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Thu September 23 2021

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Pingdemic threatens to bring construction to its knees

26 Jul The Construction Leadership Council is urging government to allow double-vaccinated workers to ignore self-isolation pings.

Construction leaders want special treatment for the construction industry ahead of the 16th August relaxation of self-isolation rules.

Under current guidance, in place for just another three weeks, anyone with the NHS Covid-19 application on their phone who gets ‘pinged’ with a message alerting them that they have been close to an infected person is supposed to isolate themselves for 10 days.

This has sparked a so-called ‘pingdemic’, with hundreds of thousands of healthy, vaccinated people sitting at home for 10 days, unable to go to work – currently including the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer.

In the first week of July, more than half a million people were ‘pinged’ and data released this week shows that in the second week of July almost 610,000 people were self-isolating in England for the same reason – all before the step-four changes were brought in on 19th July.

The guidance changes on 16th August, when vaccinated people will be advised only to get a PCR test, but will not have to isolate.

The government has relaxed the rules for key frontline emergency workers ahead of the 16th August change; the construction industry wants this dispensation too.

Construction Leadership Council co-chair Andy Mitchell said: “We have reports from across the industry of plants, sites and offices having to wind down activities as staff have been asked to isolate. This is putting very significant pressure on the sector, risking project delivery and even the viability of some firms.

“Where staff are already fully vaccinated, and recognising that such people will be free to work from 16th August anyway, we are asking the government to bring forward this date for essential industries like construction, ensuring that the industry doesn’t grind to a halt.”

The National Federation of Builders (NFB) says that the ‘pingdemic’ has put the construction supply chain at risk. It has written to the secretary of state for health to ask that the 16th August changes are brought forward for everyone – not just special vested interests.

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NFB chief executive Richard Beresford said: “We are receiving numerous reports on a daily basis of members who are struggling to keep construction working. Every member we have spoken to has Covid-negative staff isolating, some have had to shut sites due to a site managers or other key staff being pinged and no replacements available. One member said they had half their office staff sent home and many have reported projects delayed and overrunning because of a lack of subcontractors due to self-isolation.”

He added: “It also appears that the difficulties in the supply chain, such as the shortage of drivers, are being further compounded by this issue and there is now a real risk that the supply chain will collapse if we continue this trajectory until mid-August. The government needs to act to make sure its self-isolation rules are in line with the progress made by the vaccination programme and reflect the opening up of society. It must bring forward the changes to self-isolation rules as soon as possible.”

Self-isolation alerts are also having a significant impact on the supply of building materials, according to the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF). It has also raised its concerns with the government about the effect that staff shortages are placing on an industry already battling unprecedented demand.

BMF chief executive John Newcomb said: “We are currently facing the biggest demand for building products we have seen in more than 30 years. We are already struggling with the labour we have to meet that requirement. Now, with many staff going into isolation after being pinged by the NHS Covid app, builders’ merchants, and building materials suppliers and manufacturers, are facing a huge challenge."

He added: “The past two to four weeks have been described as the most challenging of the entire pandemic by some members. Our concern is that lead times will be pushed even further back and we could see disruption, now and later down the line. The supply chain is extremely stretched on all fronts. We are feeding all our data back to the government as they establish a complete picture of the situation. Hopefully a solution can be achieved. An ideal situation would be to pull the exemption date forward for the sector.”

Travis Perkins chief operating officer Frank Elkins said: “We are disappointed that our colleagues have not been included on the list of workers that can be made exempt from full self-isolation if they are alerted by NHS test and trace. Having worked hard to put in place measures that safeguard our staff while they have played such a vital role in helping to maintain essential services that are so crucial to keeping us all dry, warm, safe and secure, we urge the government to look again at the broader construction supply chain and its importance to the country at large.”

Paul Bence, managing director of Cheltenham-based builders’ merchant George Bence Group, added: “Currently, 15% of our workforce have been affected by self-isolation this week. None of them have tested positive for Covid-19. With it also being staff holiday season, we have been operating on a skeleton staff basis in many areas.”

The Construction Leadership Council has updated its guidance on self-isolation. It can be found at: www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Construction-Leadership-Council-Update-on-rules-of-self-isolation-21-July-2021.pdf
 

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