Industry calls for greater clarity on closing construction sites

An increasing number of construction firms are closing down building sites to support the national effort against coronavirus.

Industry leaders are urging the government to make a strong and clear decision on closing construction sites to protect public health as the Covid-19 crisis gathers pace. 

A growing number of firms are already voting with their feet by closing construction sites, ignoring government advice to keep sites open despite the UK being placed on three-week lockdown.

There is clearly a huge concern that the virus will spread easily on busy construction sites, but the government has said work can continue so long as people are two metres apart. But critics say this is impossible to enforce, and that public health should come first. 

Unite, the construction union, says the policy of social distancing has collapsed on many construction sites with workers displaying pictures of overcrowded buses, queues to enter sites, packed canteens and workers working in close proximity. There are also major public health concerns about the large number of construction workers travelling on the tube in London.

It is clear this week that many workers and companies are voting with their feet and suspending work on site or by not turning up for work. A growing list of companies including Multiplex, ISG, Taylor Wimpey, Mace, Galliard, Barratt and Persimmon have all suspended work on their sites and TfL and Crossrail will be bringing all project sites to a temporary safe stop unless they need to continue for operational safety reasons.

Around 1,700 workers building a new energy plant on Teesside were also sent home on Tuesday after a picture of workers gathered together became viral on social media and led to a huge backlash. The GMB union has since warned the manufacturing and construction industries to stop ignoring government advice to keep its employees at home due to COVID-19.

Infrastructure Intelligence is also aware of a number of firms who have decided to no longer work on site, including one leading supplier to house builders in the north east that closed down its operations yesterday due to difficulties with other suppliers not showing up and fears over staff continuing to stay well.

Multiplex became the first major contractor to shut down sites voluntarily after the prime minister put the UK on a three-week lockdown, with the firm claiming it couldn’t justify keeping schemes open. In an email seen by Building magazine, the firm’s chief operating officer Callum Tuckett said: “In response to the prime minister’s public address, we have no reasonable option but to close down all construction sites immediately and until further notice.

“Whilst the construction industry has undoubtedly a significant role to play as a key driver to the UK economy, we acknowledge that it is not so essential that we can expose our stakeholders and the wider community to the risk of physical harm. We also recognise the paramount obligation that all businesses now share to avoid placing any further strain on the NHS, which is going to heroic lengths to stem the spread of the virus and which needs our full support.”

Mace Group CEO, Mark Reynolds, said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of our people and the communities they work in is our top priority and unless we are certain sites can operate safely and in accordance with guidance we will not re-open them. All of our office-based staff are working from home to ensure business continuity as far as possible, and our business resilience teams are working to manage disruption and prepare our construction projects to return to full operation as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Paul Cossell, ISG CEO, said: “Looking at the global picture, I’ve decided that it is time for ISG to act ahead of government advice. We must act now and do so decisively to protect the welfare of people across the industry. I believe that by taking this decisive action we will keep our people, customers, supply chain and the general public safe. Nothing is more important.”

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