Prime minister Boris Johnson has instructed the people of Britain to stay home, further isolate themselves and only travel to work “where this is absolutely necessary”.
But questions are growing as to quite how necessary the construction industry is, given the threat of the pandemic to the National Health Service.
Until now, the prime minister has generally carried impressive support for his coronavirus strategy. But this is now starting to fragment – both among political leaders and the working population – over the issue of the construction industry.
That little building work can be done from home is obvious; what is not obvious is whether it is correct to classify construction workers as key workers who are exempt from the lockdown. The government wants sites to stay open; others are not sure that is wise.
Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, tweeted shortly after the prime minister’s television address to the nation on 23rd March: “Advice for the housing, construction & building maintenance industries: If you can work from home, do so. If you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.”
The mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who controls some of the country’s biggest construction projects as ultimate boss of Transport for London, is on the verge of shutting construction sites down.
Asked by the BBC if the definition of key workers was too wide and too many people are included in it, the mayor of London said: “I’ve expressed my concerns to the prime minister directly…. In my view, the only construction workers that should be working are those that we need for safety. I think that this is a time to understand the scale of the challenge we are facing.”
And on social media it is apparent that the people are as divided as our political leaders on the issue of “how key is construction”, with as many posts saying ‘carry on, we can't afford to stop’ as there are saying ‘this is madness, shut sites now, stop putting profit before people’.
Construction industry leadership is certainly committed to keeping the industry open for business. As reported here, the Construction Leadership Council has published guidance, produced by Build UK, on how to make social distancing work on a construction site.
The National Federation of Builders also wants to keep working. Chief executive Richard Beresford said: “Over the past two months, we have regularly spoken with members to understand how they are mitigating the spread of Covid-19 on their sites and what business practices they have implemented to ensure workers and the public remain safe. Many projects are on open air sites with workers being provided with personal protection equipment, such as masks and told to stay two metres apart. This considerably reduces risk and contact but we are also working on guidance with our members, which we believe ensures that projects can remain operational.
"With almost half of the construction industry being self-employed and pipelines taking months to acquire, our industry does not want to stop working. Until we are told by the government to down tools, we will be doing everything we can to support the safest possible working environment.”
However, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) wants more clarity from government. FMB chief executive Brian Berry said: “I am calling on the government to tell my members, today, whether they can continue to go on site and work. Small builders cannot work from home, but without cash grants available now, they risk seeing their livelihoods lost. Mixed messages are spreading further anxiety at a time when hundreds of small builders face immediate lost earning, having to make their staff redundant, and seeing their companies go to the wall.”
So the official line, for clarity, is that the government wants us to keep working – at home preferably, but on site if that is where the work is. Get to site on your own (not on public transport preferably), stay two metres away from everyone, take your own lunch, and sing Happy Birthday lots and lots with soap and water.
For full UK government guidance, see www.gov.uk/coronavirus.