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COVID-19 [April] update: its impact on construction projects

COVID-19 continues to impact construction projects in the UK and the wider economy. Read on for the latest industry insights.

The end of the ‘stay at home’ rule

The lockdowns and various restrictions across the UK seem to be having a positive result. People’s sacrifices to stay at home and avoid social gatherings brought COVID-19 daily cases down dramatically since January. On 28th March, the number of new daily cases was 3,862. This is a record number in the last six months, as the UK had not seen such a low figure since mid-September last year. Daily deaths by coronavirus also plunged to 19 on 28th March.

This positive trend in both daily cases and deaths is also a clear consequence of the government’s efforts to meet its vaccination plans. According to the latest official data, on 28th March there were over 30M people who had received the first dose in the UK. This represents 44% of the total population. Also, over 3.5M people have already received the second jab. The UK seems to be well on track to vaccinate all adults by the end of July.

Last Monday 29th March, England put an end to the ‘stay at home’ rule. This is part of the government’s roadway to ease the lockdown. From 29th March, people can meet outdoors either in a group of 6 or any group size from 2 households. People can also take part in formally organised outdoor sports with any number of people. The next step of the lockdown easement will happen no earlier than 12th April, depending on the data. From this stage, non-essential retail and gyms will be able to reopen.

COVID-19 impacts construction projects in the rail sector

Although numbers are looking positive, COVID-19 continues to impact construction projects in the UK. In the rail sector, for example, HS2 has been forced to reschedule work, once again. Transport minister Andrew Stephenson announced on 24th March that phase 1 between London and Birmingham has been forced to reschedule its programme of work. He mentioned one of the reasons being the impacts of the first COVID-19 lockdown, amongst others. Despite this, Stephenson said that this reschedule will not impact the ‘delivery into service’ date range of 2029 to 2033.

Continuing with the rail sector, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT) is threatening with a strike plan. This is a consequence of the recent intentions revealed by Network Rail to cut jobs because of the pandemic. With the changes in travel patterns, the government has said that they are spending billions to make up for the lost fare income since the start of the pandemic. Network Rail claims that the restructuring changes aim to modernise rail practices to improve efficiency and safety for a better network.

At the beginning of March, a COVID-19 outbreak hit TfL’s Training Academy for Crossrail. Over 15,000 contractors and apprentices have been trained at the academy. This new outbreak of coronavirus has put additional pressure on training for Crossrail. The pandemic is being felt with the absence of specialist trainers, trainees and availability of training facilities. Despite this outbreak, Crossrail seems to be on track to open by the first half of 2022.

Airport schemes still hit by the pandemic

The air industry has also suffered one of the largest hits by COVID-19. In 2019, Heathrow handled almost 81M passengers. In 2020, this number plunged to just over 22M. Air cargo also fell by 28%. The fact that going on holidays is currently illegal in the UK has put airports under significant pressure. Although the Supreme Court has lifted the ban on Heathrow’s third runway, it is now unclear whether this project will go ahead or not. London City Airport has also paused indefinitely its expansion plans. Although some are optimistic about global holidays becoming legal again from 17th May, experts believe that passenger numbers will not climb to pre-COVID levels until 2024 at the earliest.

Major road construction project impacted by COVID-19

The reduction of car commutes has also triggered impacts on major road schemes. For example, the transport secretary has recently announced the cancellation of the £3.5bn Oxford-Cambridge expressway. This road project had been previously seen as vital for economic growth and housing development for one million homes between Oxford and Cambridge. Grant Shapps recently said:

‘Our analysis shows the expressway cannot deliver such links in a way that provides value for money for the taxpayer, so I have taken the decision to cancel the project. But we remain committed to boosting transport links in the area, helping us to create jobs and build back better from coronavirus.’

In summary, a year after the first lockdown, COVID-19 continues to impact construction projects in the UK. Although cases and vaccinations look positive, there are still long-lasting impacts to tackle as an industry. Let us continue to work together and build back better.

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