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COVID-19 and construction projects: What’s the impact?

The global pandemic created by COVID-19 has impacted every industry, including construction and engineering. With the latest Government guidelines for businesses and organisations, it’s proving difficult to carry on business as usual, especially on-site. This article will give you details on the latest impact of COVID-19 on construction projects in the UK.

Why does COVID-19 affect construction projects?

There are two key elements that play a major role in reducing the spread of the virus. One is social distancing and the other being adequate hygiene practices. Anybody who has worked on a construction site will know that these can be rather challenging. On the one hand, many jobs require more than one person to work closely together. On the other, welfare facilities can sometimes be somewhat basic and located relatively far from where the actual work is taking place.

The UK Government guidelines about coronavirus and work require social distancing and adequate welfare facilities. Because of this, there has been some confusion, particularly in the construction industry, about whether sites can remain open or not. Major construction companies made quick decisions to shut down their sites to ensure the safety of their workers.

TfL and Crossrail, amongst the most affected

TfL and Crossrail, for example, were amongst the first to make their decision. Due to COVID-19, they are shutting down all their construction sites unless it’s unsafe to do so. Transport commissioner Mike Brown said: ‘This is being done to ensure the safety of our construction and project teams and also to further reduce the number of people travelling on the public transport network. It is vital that the transport network is only used by critical workers.’

Crossrail’s chief executive Mark Wild said: ‘We asked everyone who could work from home to do so and put in place measures to limit movement across the programme. We have also taken the decision to temporarily stop station activity and close our sites.’

The risks of shutting down construction projects due to COVID-19

Most construction sites are used to shut down – they do it every Christmas. However, the challenge with the COVID-19 crisis is that there has been no time for planning. Decisions have needed to be made extremely quickly. A big part of this challenge has been the uncertainty about how long the shut-down will last. And even with sites shut down, there are risks that need to be monitored and mitigated.

Construction director at Mace said: ‘Although we’re closing jobs, a number of people will man our sites, as a contingency: to monitor and manage risks, seen and unforeseen. Flooding is an example of such a risk.’ Other risks to be managed are related to electric systems and deep excavations.

HS2, London Tideway and Hinkley Point C also affected

Another major construction project in the UK impacted by COVID-19 is HS2. From the seven major work packages of phase one, five have been put on hold. All contractors on phase two have stopped working.

Other big projects like London’s Tideway and Hinkley Point C have also been impacted. They haven’t shut down completely, but they have reduced the activity and the number of workers on site.

Balfour Beatty has opted to keep their sites open, but only those where they are ‘able to appropriately implement the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued by the Construction Leadership Council to ensure the continued health, safety and wellbeing of its staff and contractors.’

Small construction companies also suffer the COVID-19 crisis

With so many construction projects shutting down, businesses are undergoing a critical moment. Many companies are starting to suffer the effects of the outflow of cash. The Mineral Products Association (MPA) – one of the major associations of material supply for construction – is putting pressure on the government to take additional measures to help businesses. MPA Chief executive Nigel Jackson wrote to chancellor Rishi Sunak calling for ‘further measures to reduce cash outflow from businesses, including putting back payment of employers NIC, corporation tax and business rates over the next three months.

And the impact extends beyond major infrastructure projects. It is also affecting deeply the residential housing sector. Construction Products Association economics director Noble Francis said the lockdown ‘has led to a collapse in new housing demand since people cannot visit show homes or complete transactions.’ Consequently, builders and brickmakers are shutting down temporarily.

There’s hope for the construction industry

For those construction sites that remain open, the Construction Leadership Council has developed Site Operating Procedures. Published on 23rd March, this guidance ‘is intended to introduce consistent measures on sites of all sizes in line with the government’s recommendations on social distancing.

It is also important to mention that the NHS has launched a ‘Plea for PPE.’ Doctors have asked construction companies to donate basic PPE. They are in need of masks, eye protection and other disposables.

Finally, Secretary of State for Business Alok Sharma wrote a letter to the construction industry on 31st March to thank them of their efforts to date. In this letter, Alok Sharma writes: ‘The Government has advised that wherever possible, people should work at home. However, we know that for many people working in construction their job requires them to travel to their place of work, and they can continue to do so. This is consistent with the Chief Medical Officer’s advice.’

There’s no doubt that the virus will be present for some time. Nobody really knows the long-term impacts of COVID-19 in the construction sector and wider society. For now, we must just follow the Government rules and stay home as much as possible. Together we can win this battle!

And remember to share this article with your colleagues!

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