Construction workers during COVID – The Unsung Heroes

The government has stated that construction “is essential to keeping the country operating”, and therefore will be keeping sites open.

Doubling down on this, on 11 January, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, released a letter stating: “firms and tradespeople in the construction sector and its supply chain, including merchants, suppliers and product manufacturers, should continue to operate during this national lockdown.” Kwarteng also promised that essential travel and instance where staying overnight is the only option will also be allowed.

However, as the governments of the UK & Ireland consider possible increases to restrictions, it seems that the construction sector might fall foul of restrictions further down the line. Building Magazine reported on 18 January that senior management from some of the largest UK construction firms spent the weekend making plans, in response to government threats to shut down sites in London, amid concerns over the numbers of workers using public transport.

Standford Building From an economic perspective, it would be very risky of the government to shut down construction. There are approximately 2.4 million construction industry jobs in the UK – 6.6% of all jobs – the most seen since 2007. Shutting down a growing industry which is responsible for 7% of the country’s GDP would be economically damaging for all the UK and Ireland at this time. It would introduce another swathe of workers requiring government subsidies such as furlough payments. Some self-employed construction workers may find that they are not eligible for support.

Freddie Millar, director of Trident’s Dublin office, is nervous about the time ahead. As construction jobs account for 10% of GDP in Ireland, the importance of maintaining operation is key.

“We saw ‘non-essential’ sites closed such as large city centre hotel developments we’re working on, from 27th March until 18th May as advised by the Government and sites had to open following strict adherence to the Construction Industry Federation’s social distancing and site procedures.

“Closure of these sites has meant a knock-on delay for project programmes and the resultant claims from contractors for additional costs that are not the fault of our clients. These are currently being negotiated.

“Sites for non- essential works closed again on Friday 8th January and we just hope they won’t be closed for as long again this time.”

In Ireland where the industry has been closed down for a second time in 12 months, Mr Tom Parlon, director general of the Irish Construction Industry Federation said earlier this month the industry has had “an excellent track record” at keeping COVID-19 off sites and managing it when on site, much like the UK.

As uncertain as most communications we are receiving regarding our industry are, it seems to be compounded for those on apprenticeships or graduate schemes.

During the pandemic, employers could instigate a break in an employee’s apprenticeship if it was longer than four weeks. This would change the dates of final assessments and ultimately the end of apprenticeships. This option was practically mandatory for those whose apprenticeship could not be continued remotely.

With the completion rates of construction apprenticeships falling, and the construction industry having a severe recruitment crisis at the moment, how can the government justify closing a sector, after its own poor acknowledgement of that sector’s needs, when its only fault is that it is desperate to thrive?

We have rightly lauded our frontline key workers throughout this pandemic, but construction workers are some of the unsung heroes. They have built Nightingale hospitals in record time, adapted many buildings to make them “COVID-safe”, continued to build much needed housing, sustainability and infrastructure projects. The construction industry has adapted its Health and Safety policies and practices overnight and helped to maintain some desperately needed employment in this crucial sector. Had these construction projects not continued then the long-term damage to the UK and Ireland could be much worse.

If you are looking to continue your project during this time, contact Daniel Brooks-Dowsett on 07717 128925 or daniel.brooks-dowsett@tridentbc.com.

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