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

COVID-19 continues to impact construction projects in the UK. As the pandemic continues to spread across the country, construction sites, companies and workers struggle to go back to ‘business as usual’. Read on to find out the latest update on how coronavirus is impacting the engineering and construction sectors.

Latest COVID-19 figures in the UK

The UK currently ranks #5 in the world for total COVID-19 cases. It also ranks #2 for total deaths, approaching 40,000 and only exceeded by the US. The daily number of new infections over the last two weeks has slightly decreased. However, the pace of decrease is much slower than that of European countries like Spain, Italy or Germany. During the third week of May, the UK registered daily cases ranging between 1,600 and 3,500. On the other hand, Spain only registered between 460 and 1,700 daily cases. Italy is doing even better, with only between 300 and 800 daily cases registered during the third week of May.

In spite of these numbers, Boris Johnson recently announced that thousands of high street shops and shopping centres will reopen on June 15. He also announced that outdoor markets and certain shops that can meet the required guidelines could open as soon as 1st June. If you want to check what you can/cannot do with the new government guidelines, you can do so here.

COVID-19 is impacting the contract value of construction projects

Although the government is starting to ease the lockdown, COVID-19 continues to impact all industries, including construction and engineering. The latest figures show a decrease of 36.4% in the award value of construction contracts for April compared to March this year. It also represents a 16.1% decrease compared to April 2019.

The chief economist at Barbour ABI and AMA Research, Tom Hall, said recently:

‘We expected a large fall in contract awards for April, however we are seeing increasing on-site activity as large projects re-open. The infrastructure sector has been less impacted than other sectors, leading to hopes of an infrastructure-led recovery towards the end of the year.’

Infrastructure projects, the least impacted amongst construction sites

The good news for the construction sector is that, as Tom Hall pointed out, the infrastructure sector has not been as heavily hit. Indeed, Build UK contractor members recently reported that 86% of sites in England and Wales are now open. When it comes to housing projects, they reported 67% of sites open.

The UK Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which we already mentioned in last month’s update about COVID-19, has seen 8 million people furloughed at a cost of £11.1bn to date. In order to expand the protection to the economy, on the 26th May, the UK Government increased the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme from £50 million to £200 million.

On 11th May, the Government also published its COVID-19 recovery strategy. The strategy encourages construction workers in England to travel to work if their site is open and they cannot work from home. In instances where social distancing measures cannot be implemented, companies should adhere to the recommendations set out in the fourth version of the COVID-19 construction Site Operating Procedure (SOP), updated on 19th May. This updated version of the SOP removes the requirement to keep face-to-face contact to 15 minutes or less. It also states that workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19.

Confusing advice leaves construction workers in limbo

However, the advice differs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government, for example, published guidance for construction sites in April, stating that ‘work on construction sites, unless it is for essential projects, should stop immediately, as confirmed in new guidance for the construction industry.‘ Essential projects include facilities directly used in COVID-19 related activities, essential public services and maintenance to critical infrastructure. Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop said:

‘We recognise that this is an extremely difficult time for businesses of all kinds, but the Scottish Government’s priority is saving lives and fighting COVID-19. To this end, all construction sites should close unless they are essential to the health and welfare of the country during this crisis.’

This contradictory advice within the UK leaves Scottish and Welsh residents who work in England and vice-versa in a difficult situation. Crossing the border is actively discouraged in both Wales and Scotland with fines. Hinkley Point C alone, for example, counts on 1,000 workers who reside in Wales but work on the Somerset plant.

Latest COVID-19 guidance for construction projects

As most sites reopen in England in an effort to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on construction projects, the UK Government has published Construction Workplace Safety Guidance. The three main additional measures that employers should take from this guidance include:

  1. Introducing one-way flow-through areas and floor markings to maintain social distancing (where possible). Minimising the number of unnecessary visits to the worksite.
  2. Maintaining social distancing and avoiding surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site.
  3. Sharing the results of risk assessments with the workforce.

Data from the Office for National Statistics for March and April show that low-skilled male construction workers had a death rate of 25.9 deaths per 100,000 (22 deaths). This figure makes it one of the most affected professions in the UK.

Life after COVID-19 – the case for digital transformation

There’s still a lot of confusion and uncertainty on the horizon for construction workers and projects. But one thing is clear – there’s never been a better case for digital transformation in the construction sector. In fact, the construction sector is the least digitalised, just after agriculture. As an industry, we should be taking advantage of this opportunity to implement more remote working and more digital innovations. BIM services are one way to help achieve this. Together, we can make the move from working harder to working smarter.

How has COVID-19 impacted your construction projects or you personally, as a construction professional? Let us know in the comments below!


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