The UK government has announced another three weeks of the coronavirus lockdown but more and more construction companies are deciding that they have been sitting around long enough and it is time to get back to work, albeit cautiously.
Most of the major contractors appear to be now back at work on many of their sites, heeding the government’s call to keep the economy moving, while also trying to observe Public Health guidelines on social distancing.
Although many majors, including Mace, BAM, Wates and McAlpine, have furloughed staff, there is evidence that the industry has started to move in the direction of reopening sites and resuming works.
Some main contractors, like Mace, were quick to announce that they would close sites that were not urgent for the duration of the lockdown, but are now going back to work – albeit on a reduced activity basis, in compliance with the new coronavirus Site Operating Procedures, which includes a requirement for managers to try to keep workers at least two metres apart, where practical. This ‘two metre rule’ is merely a suggestion and not an actual rule, the latest (third) version of the Site Operating Procedures (SOP) makes clear.
Others shut their sites just for a few days to put in measures enabling them to comply with the SOP. Most bosses, it seems, are keen to keep the money flowing and their staff working, regardless of the residual risk.
Main contractor Beard, for example, has continued to operating on more than 90% of its sites. As well as implementing SOP guidance, it has lengthened the working day and re-sequenced work to allow different workers to be on site at different times, reducing human contact.
Although operational capacity has been reduced to around 50% by these measures, and by the enforced absence of workers, Beard has ensured that it is able to continue working on as many sites as possible.
A key issue for the contractors is the availability of building materials. While some builders’ merchants and producers have been forced to close, many are still trading and able to supply sites that remain open.
Mark Beard, chairman of Beard, said: “The safety of all those working for us, and of the general public, is always our top priority. We are doing everything we can to ensure our sites are as safe as possible, and we will never put pressure on anybody to work on-site when they should be self-isolating.
“We respect other firms’ decision to close sites, but the government has given the industry a clear steer that it wants construction work to continue where possible. We are putting in every possible measure to follow this steer and continue to operate as many sites as we can.
“When sites close, that results in a fall in demand for materials, and builders’ merchants shutting their doors. This can lead to a vicious circle with more sites being forced to shut, due to a lack of demand for materials.
“In response to the government’s urgings to carry on working, to honour our commitments to clients, and to keep as many staff and subcontractors in productive work as possible, we are determined to do our bit to help turn the current vicious circle into a virtuous cycle.”
Dorset-based structural steel company Reid Steel, which was one of the first to shut down its manufacturing and site operations following the government’s implementation of the lockdown on 23rd March, is now planning a limited to return to work at its manufacturing facility in Christchurch.
The company is also working on plans that will allow its site teams (including subcontractors) to return to construction sites.
Managing director Simon Boyd said: “When the lockdown was announced, we immediately took the decision to send all our people home to stop any potential spread of the virus and to give us time to consider alternative measures.
“As government has advised we should do, we have been working on plans to find a way to re-open the factory/works and our construction sites to allow those who cannot work from home back to work while still respecting the hygiene and social distancing guidelines.
“It is a great relief that we are able to announce that we have found a way forward to meet the requirements and re-open our factory and works in Christchurch on Monday 27th April following a three-week shutdown.
“A number of special measures will be taken, and these will be explained to our team in detail before any work commences.
“The reopening of some construction sites is happening in the wider economy and we are working on our safety plans to put forward to our contracting partners. We hope to reach agreement on these over the coming few weeks so that some, if not all the sites can reopen in early May.
“We are also working with our subcontractors and suppliers who we are helping to get back to work as soon as safe methods of work are confirmed, and they can be mobilised.”
Other suppliers are keen to let it be known that they are also open for business. Flexcrete, for example, the AkzoNobel company that makes concrete repair and waterproofing materials, said that its factory was still running. “Following the release of information from Build UK and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), it is expected that more construction sites will re-open over the coming weeks,” a representative said. “All Flexcrete products are being manufactured and customer deliveries are being made.”