Despite mounting pressure to shut down sites, to which many building firms have already conceded, official advice from the government (as of 7am on 25th March 2020) is to keep construction sites open.
However, the caveat is that work may only continue on sites that adhere to the official Covid-19 Site Operating Procedures, published yesterday. These set out practical steps for maximising personal hygiene and social distancing on construction sites.
The Site Operating Procedures do not, however, adequately address the issue of how to get construction crews from home to site and back again without sharing confined public space on public transport. Some may be able to drive or cycle to work, as recommended; many are not.
Representatives of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) spoke with government yesterday and agreed to keep sites open where the new code of practice could be observed.
The CLC has confirmed that all construction sites should assess their situation and those sites that cannot implement the Site Operating Procedures should not remain open.
However, two men on the Construction Leadership Council in charge of big building companies – David Thomas of Barratt and Mark Reynolds of Mace – have shut their own sites despite advising others to stay open. The industry will be entitled to ask: do we do as you say or do as you do? Or is there disagreement among the councillors?
The Build UK trade federation said: “Our members are taking this seriously and a number of them have now stopped their construction activities to look at how they can implement these procedures effectively.
“Reduced services on public transport, particularly in London, are also presenting a specific challenge for workers travelling to and from sites due to overcrowding. The CLC has stated that ‘if people cannot get to site whilst complying with the government’s guidance, then they should not do so’.
“We recognise that this has significant implications for sites in city centres, particularly those in London.”
As we reported yesterday, ISG, Galliard, Bovis Homes (along with sister companies Vistry Partnerships and Linden Homes),as well as Barratt, Taylor Wimpey, Speller Metcalfe and Knight Build are among developers and building firms that have decided to shut their sites despite government advice.
To this list we can now add Sir Robert McAlpine, Persimmon, Mace and Careys. And the picture is changing rapidly.
Others are taking a more nuanced approach. Wates is shutting its sites for two days only to enable it to implement procedures that comply with the new Site Operating Procedures. "It will allow time for plans to be produced that, amongst other things, will ensure everyone involved in our projects can observe social distancing guidelines," the company said. "We are collaborating with our customers and our supply chain partners to ensure these plans can be implemented effectively. Our current expectation is that our projects will reopen on Friday 27th March, but we will keep this under constant review."
Morgan Sindall is also seeing some clients close its sites. It said: “Certain construction sites have already closed under instruction from the relevant clients and this is expected to increase across a number of divisions and activities. In addition, activity on other sites and projects is slowing."
Persimmon said: "Construction sites are commencing an orderly shutdown with only essential work taking place, which will be focused on making partly-built homes safe and secure and where failure to complete the build could put customers in a vulnerable position."
Careys said: "In the interests of the safety and wellbeing of our employees, their families and loved ones, the communities they live in and the wider general public, we are working with our partners in the industry to safely close our site operations over the next 72 hours. This is the right and responsible action to take and we see it as our civic duty to take this action now. Whilst we conduct this exercise our skeleton staff will abide by safe social distancing."
Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds, who himself sits on the Construction Leadership Council, said: "From 5pm on Tuesday 24th March, we will temporarily close all of Mace’s offices in Europe, and temporarily suspend all site operations for at least 48 hours – with the exception of safety critical works – while we consult with our clients and supply chain."
As public debate continues to rage about the rights and wrongs of letting construction workers, many of whom are self-employed, continue to earn a living, the chair of the British Safety Council, Lawrence Waterman, has come out on the side of the stoppers.
Lawrence Waterman, previously in charge of health & safety during the London 2012 Olympics construction programme, said: “The construction sector needs clarity from the government – on most sites social distancing will be impossible or simply unsafe. All non-essential construction should end now so that construction workers can go home and stay home like everyone else.
“Some building work will be deemed essential – for example, building work that will improve access to hospitals or road access which will help tackle the virus. It is also the case that half-built buildings need to be made safe and workers should prioritise work that can safely suspend construction for as long as necessary.”