Voices from across industry and academia have called for an immediate halt to non-essential construction work to suppress the spread of Covid-19.
While most businesses throughout the UK have shuttered, leaving millions working from home or in employment limbo, many construction sites have remained open. Government advice has been that construction can continue so long as social distancing is observed, but pictures from in and around sites have shown workers in close quarters, as well as on packed tube trains as they make their way to and from the sites.
“The construction sector needs clarity from the government – on most sites social distancing will be impossible or simply unsafe,” said Lawrence Waterman, chair of the British Safety Council. “All non-essential construction should end now so that construction workers can go home and stay home like everyone else.”
According to Waterman, the only building that should continue is work to improve hospitals or road access that will help tackle the virus, as well as essential construction to ensure the safety of half-built structures.
The nature of construction work precludes any notions of remote working, and large firms are usually contractually obliged to turn up on site daily unless ordered by the government not to. Many who work in the sector are also self-employed, and until yesterday had no income guarantees from the government in relation to lost earnings from the coronavirus crisis. Paul McFadyen, managing director of metals4U, believes mandatory closure is the only way to ensure sites are closed and workers stay at home to prevent further spread of the disease.
“While office workers can work from home, and many retailers have been forced by the government to close, there is no such certainty for those working in construction,” he said. “Without forced closure of construction sites, contractors have no choice but to continue their progress to fulfil contractual obligations.”
Work on major projects such as Crossrail and HS2 has been halted, but large building firms such as Balfour Beatty and Sisk have continued operating, insisting that social distancing can be observed onsite. As a report from Construction News emerged yesterday that the government had no intentions of encouraging further site closures, calls from politicians, industry leaders and academics have exhorted Number 10 to intervene.
“I urge the government to stop all non-essential non-Covid-19 related construction with immediate effect,” said Dr Andrea Collins, senior clinical lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).
“We are hearing of multiple reports of construction workers crowding the tube, not social distancing where able [at morning briefing meetings] or unable to social distance on a site due to the needs of their work.
“This is not sufficient; these people are at risk. The government must act. Whilst some construction companies have taken the sensible decision to stop all onsite work, others have not and are not being responsible employers and therefore putting staff at undue risk.”