Boris Johnson has announced that the UK is in lockdown for three weeks to combat the escalating threat of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, causing confusion for the construction industry about what this means for building sites across the UK.
One of the Prime MInister’s most notable rules from a self builder’s perspective was that all gatherings of more than two people in public will be ceased, excluding people you live with. This led to many builders going to sleep on Monday night unsure if they would be going to work this morning.
Late on Monday night, housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that builders working on sites can continue to do so. But all building sites must follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.
Advice for the housing, construction & building maintenance industries:
🔹If you can work from home, do so.
🔹If you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.
🔹Outside of work, remember to #StayHomeSaveLives
— Robert Jenrick (@RobertJenrick) March 23, 2020
However, Michael Gove muddied the waters during an appearance on Good Morning Britain this morning. He reiterated that when a building site is empty, workers can carry on providing they adhere to social distance, but then stated that if families are living in the buildings where repairs and maintenance are occurring, then work should not continue.
Builders are understandably concerned at the prospect of travelling to building sites, even if stringent hygiene measures have been implemented.
Merchants Close Their Doors
Another major announcement was that all shops selling non-essential goods would be closed immediately. It was later clarified that hardware stores were among the shops exempt from the government’s ban.
But this morning several of the UK’s biggest builders merchants revealed they were closing their doors for the day, and no deliveries will be made. These merchants include:
All of these merchants have confirmed that they are in discussions with the government over how to provide services safely to customers during the lockdown, and it remains to be seen over the coming days whether they will reopen in any capacity.
Screwfix remains open and has pledged to introduce a number of measures that enable customers to obtain materials.
Jason Orme, Content Director of Homebuilding & Renovating, believes merchants closing for the day, and possibly longer, is a significant development for self builders who’d hoped to be able to continue with their projects.
Orme said: “With merchants now mainly closed then the reality is that for homeowners employing builders for self builds or home extension project, work will end today as the materials supply shuts.”
Size of Building Sites
Another area of uncertainty for builders is the difference between small building sites and larger sites. Whereas small sites will only have a handful of tradespeople working at any one time, larger sites that include communal changing areas and eating facilities pose a greater risk that builders could become ill.
It has not yet been officially confirmed whether larger sites will be differentiated from smaller sites by the government.
Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, called for greater clarity from the government with regards to which construction sites will remain open.
Berry said: “Our members want to do the right thing, but the advice coming from the government is anything but clear. I am calling on the government to tell my members, today, whether they can continue to go on site and work. Small builders cannot work from home, but without cash grants available now, they risk seeing their livelihoods lost.
“Mixed messages are spreading further anxiety at a time when hundreds of small builders face immediate lost earning, having to make their staff redundant, and seeing their companies go to the wall.”
New Guidelines Recommended
The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has published new operating guides for build sites to ensure builders are protected on site and the risk of the spread of infection is minimised.
Andy Mitchell, co-chair of CLC, said: “It is vital that the health and safety requirements of any construction activity must not be compromised at this time. If an activity cannot be undertaken safely due to a lack of suitably qualified personnel being available, or social distancing being implemented, it should not take place.”
The guidance is intended to introduce consistent measures on build sites of all sizes in line with the government’s guidance on social distancing. The CLC is not a regulatory or enforcement body with the power to instruct sites to close.
The government’s unclear advice on building has also been questioned by the British Safety Council. It also raised concern that construction workers will be braving the London Underground to commute to build sites.
Lawrence Waterman, chair of the British Safety Council, said: “The construction sector needs clarity from the government – on most sites social distancing will be impossible or simply unsafe. All non-essential construction should end now so that construction workers can go home and stay home like everyone else.
“Some building work will be deemed essential – for example, building work that will improve access to hospitals or road access which will help tackle the virus. It is also the case that half-built buildings need to be made safe and workers should prioritise work that can safely suspend construction for as long as necessary.”