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Construction’s road to recovery: How do we get the wheels turning again?

The coronavirus pandemic has had a considerable impact on the UK’s construction industry, slowing or, in many cases, completely halting operations.

Almost overnight countless construction sites across Britain closed temporarily to help slow the spread of COVID-19, despite there not being a legal requirement to completely close them.

Search Construction & Property is a national supplier of white and blue-collar personnel to the building and civil engineering industry. Managing Director Paul Kynaston, a member of the REC construction forum, shared his views on the road to recovery.

Paul oversees recruitment that spans the length and breadth of the UK, from Inverness to Brighton.

As noises now begin to be made on the easing of restrictions – without any concrete direction released from central Government – whatever the outcome, the next 6-12 months may see working environments alter like we’ve never seen before.

Paul said: “At the beginning of the lockdown we had a situation where the Scottish Government issued guidance that called for the immediate halt to work on construction sites across the country that were not supporting ‘essential’ work.

“In England there was no formal guidance. The decision was effectively put into the hands of the industry, with firms making the lockdown call themselves.

“Despite the differing approach, we faced a situation where, within a 24-hour period in March, we saw demand dropping significantly across the entire industry.”

While high volume, rapid requirements were placed on the industry in the form of mobilising teams to support the “pop-up” Nightingale Hospitals, normal work all but ground to a halt with an estimated 70% drop in requirements across the UK.

When the tap switches back on, taking sites out of mothballs and easing workers back in, mindful of guidance to date, there will be a transformation of the sites we’re used to seeing. But what could that look like?

Changes to how sites operate

“Constructions firms will be actively looking into how they can ease the lockdown restrictions across their sites.

“This is exceedingly difficult on building sites and other construction environments. While many are outdoor and perhaps perceived, therefore, to be safer working environments, the reality is that the volumes of people, working in close proximity to others, and the supply chain impact all needs to be considered.

“The scope of work won’t change, but the capacity on site at any given point in time is set to massively reduce. We could be looking at shift systems and longer working days.”

But there lies a problem here. Currently, in the UK, law is in place which protects the local environment around construction sites from potential noise pollution between the hours of 6pm and 8am Monday to Friday, and between 1pm and 8am on Saturdays. At any time on a Sunday or bank holiday, such work is illegal.

From local authorities easing these restrictions, through to social distancing and PPE, a number of questions remain unanswered.

A collection of construction firms and industry leaders have already publicly stated that the government needs to make clear if the industry is allowed to carry on working during the lockdown. So, in terms of a staged recovery, what might the future look like?

The need for clear guidelines

Paul adds: “Sectors must a have clear ‘permission to work’ mandate, reassuring workers and members of the public that they can continue their operations alongside the government’s ‘stay at home’ policy.

“We also need to see clear sector guidance on compliance with social distancing requirements and, importantly, the government endorsing sector-wide policies such as the Site Operating Procedures, guidance on the use of PPE, and also the role of supply chains including manufacturers, distributors and merchants. How does any of that work in an already heavily compliant working environment?

“All these factors need to be considered alongside flexibility from local authorities on extending working hours to support output and productivity where social distancing requirements result in a reduced headcount.

With an easing of restrictions and the threat of a second peak of coronavirus before the end of the year, while the wheels may start turning, it’s set to be another 6-12 months before anything close to normality returns.

For a further discussion about how Paul and the construction and property team can support your firm in getting the wheels turning again, don't hesitate to get in touch