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construction and coronavirus: to work or not to work?.

With the formal notice to proceed on HS2, the government gave its strongest indication yet that it's ready to get the construction industry back to work. After all, in times of economic downturn, it's Britain's builders that have put the economy back on the path to recovery.

But it is critical to recognise that the coronavirus pandemic is unlike any global crisis we've seen before. With the country locked down and people advised to stay at home, the big question facing construction right now is 'to work or not to work?'

Government guidelines
 

The problem for the construction sector has been a lack of clarity. When Boris Johnson's government first declared lockdown, the industry was stuck in a quandary. Were they non-essential workers or could they continue to travel to work because their work couldn't be done from home? What seemed more insurmountable were the two-metre social distancing guidelines. 

Construction waited for clarification with none forthcoming. Until now. Version 3 of the official CLC site operating procedures released on 14 April offers the clearest guidelines yet for onsite working. But do they go far enough? And should construction workers stop working as advised by the Mayor of London among others or continue to power the economy as many believe?

Construction: hero or villain?
 

The sight of gangs of construction workers in their hi-vis being minibused to work has proved highly divisive. As some people are quick to point out, workers are being put at risk in situations where close working is unavoidable. Add in the virulence of the Covid-19 virus and one worker becomes capable of infecting their family and every surface they touch between the site and their home. It's a concern shared by some site managers who acknowledge that social distancing guidelines are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. 

But that's not how many in the workforce see it. Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, has been quick to praise the industry for its contribution to the resilience of the UK. For many of the 'Boris Boys', continuing to work in a pandemic is a mark of heroism. They feel that the risks they are choosing to take are essential to support and drive forward the economy when other sectors are effectively paralysed as a result of lockdown.

Who decides?
 

According to Gov.UK "Construction sites have not been asked to close, so work can continue if it is done safely." In effect, it's the responsibility of every site supervisor to make the call when it comes to reinforcing the two-metre social distancing rules or determining whether a project should go ahead. 

But when the UK's largest construction firm, Balfour Beatty, is keeping its sites open, businesses further down the supply chain have no option but to keep working. For businesses looking at a significant revenue shortfall before the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme payments kick in at the end of April, to work or not to work, no matter how risky, is simply not a choice.

Social responsibility
 

The Government's decision to proceed with HS2 says construction sites can continue if strengthened H&S guidelines are enforced. Even the largest construction companies simply cannot afford to keep their sites shut down indefinitely - working on profit margins as tight as 2-3% makes those billion pound turnovers essential to survival.

But behind the economic arguments lie big questions of social responsibility. The kind of questions that the CLC has been struggling to balance in its coronavirus guidelines.
Safety first?

Just two weeks ago, the CLC issued revised guidelines which were scrapped almost immediately following uproar from the industry. The guidance was branded unworkable for prohibiting any close working even with PPE. Now a third version has been released revising the close working protocol to read "If you are not able to work whilst maintaining a two-metre distance, you should consider whether the activity should continue and, if so, risk assess it using the hierarchy of controls."

At a time when the industry is crying out for clear guidance and leadership, even the reworked CLC guidelines may not go far enough, leaving much to interpretation. Once again, decisions will be made by site supervisors using their own interpretation of the rules and managers will be forced to make a decision between the safety and wellbeing of workers and bringing in a project to a deadline. 

Essential workers?
 

With so many non-essential workers now furloughed, does it make sense that residential and commercial construction schemes should still continue. The Federation of Master Builders doesn't think so and has issued its members with guidance that only essential and emergency works should be carried out during the Covid-19 crisis. That work should be carried out to PHE advice, including social distancing measures and risk assessments.

There are signs that the lockdown may be easing across Europe, with Spain taking steps to get its construction industry back on its feet. But with the peak of the crisis not yet reached in the UK, should non-essential construction workers stay at home? To work or not to work is a question that will dog the industry way beyond the resolution of the current lockdown.
 

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