Construction firms scramble to keep sites open

Construction firms across the region are doing their best to keep sites open and putting special measures in place to keep staff safe while drawing up contingency plans for if work does have to halt.

Contractors echoed calls this week from trade body Build UK for the Government to do what it can to keep construction sites open “on the basis that the infrastructure being built is essential to the recovery of the UK economy.”

There are widespread concerns that the Government’s recommendations for people to work from home where possible could be escalated to enforced isolation, in line with measures taken by other European countries, something which Build UK says is “not an option” for the construction industry.

A spokesperson for Bam Construction, which is lined up to build Oak View Group’s Eastlands Arena said: “Our perspective is very much the same as Build UK in that we are trying to keep all our sites operational and they currently all are.

“We are having a dialogue with our clients to make sure that we explore all the different ways that we can minimise the risk of coronavirus spreading on site and to make sure that sites remain operational if and when cases occur.

“Our mindset is that we need to keep the sites open for everyone’s benefit; ours, our clients and the industry at large and therefore we have to focus on finding ways to do that. It may be that there are considerable differences in sites themselves because they are not all the same.”

Michael Conlon of Preston-based Conlon Construction said that his firm was taking measures to reduce the spread of the virus, including encouraging those who could to work from home but expressed concerns for contractors within the supply chain.

“We are aware of the statement made by Build UK calling on the Government to pull out all the stops to keep construction going and we fully support it. We are also aware of the statements made by Rishi Sunak about the support being made available and, while we are relatively secure, we are aware that many amongst our supply chain may be affected especially if this should drag out for months.

“We are therefore doing our utmost to make sure our supply chain is aware of what is available and keep up to date with things but really this is out of our hands.”

However, one construction recruitment agency Place North West contacted said sites were starting to close and their work placing people in roles was being pulled back.

Cassidy + Ashton Gorton School

Conlon is on site to deliver the 472-place Gorton Mount Primary Academy

Meanwhile, construction firms are taking measures on site in order to limit the chances of transmitting the virus.

Bam said: “Our approach is to investigate the specific risks for each project, working closely with clients and our supply chain to identify and validate potential solutions which could include pre-ordering materials, changing the programme, and changing how client meetings are held.

“This is extremely difficult for site-based teams, so we are applying our imagination and collaborating closely with clients, suppliers and each other to find creative solutions which work whilst still being able to deliver our projects and services.”

Some of safeguarding measures being taken by Bam include:

  • Creating more space between people in site environments as a result of those who can work from home doing so. This also reduces travel on public transport
  • Commissioning additional cleaning in offices and sites
  • Adopting “split shift” arrangements. When public transport is the only way into work, this helps reduce the infection risks associated with travelling in peak times. It also serves to further reduce the number of people in at any one time, and helps maintain the number of healthy employees available to manage operations safely
  • Risk-assessing and prioritising roles and responsibilities so that cover can be identified and put in place for key roles
  • Closely liaising with and supporting suppliers to enable them to operate as efficiently as possible.

Jodrell Bank First Light 5

Kier started work on the £21m First Light Pavilion at Jodrell Bank in February

A spokesperson for Kier said: “We have implemented a number of measures to prevent and protect employees within our offices and on our sites, this includes a no physical contact policy and cancellations of non-business critical site visits. We are monitoring the situation daily and are ready to implement business continuity plans if required.”

Such plans will be required should sites be forced to close and if that does happen it is likely that firms will need to rely on support from the Government.

The £330bn emergency funding support announced by the Chancellor on Tuesday was widely welcomed but there was scepticism from within the industry surrounding the issue of loans which will be made available to support businesses during the crisis.

Stuart Stead, property and construction partner at business advisory firm Cowgillls said: “Everyone is missing the fact that these loans have to be paid back – they don’t fund losses. I think it would make sense if a mechanism was designed to allow loans to be waived either wholly or partly. Construction companies need solid financial support not more debt.”

Stead also echoed Build UK’s calls for contractors to ensure that payment schedules were adhered to. “There needs to be real pressure put on tier one contractors to ensure its supply chain is paid promptly, over and above usual protocol.”

He also called for the Government to be more forthright in its guidance and to push back Domestic Reverse Charge, a change in the VAT system within the construction industry due to be rolled out in October whereby VAT is paid by the contractor employing the sub-contractor rather than the other way around, to aid cashflow.

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