Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham criticised “weakness” in Whitehall’s social distancing advice in relation to building, as firms fight to keep sites open to limit the economic impact of the outbreak.
In his weekly Covid-19 update to journalists on Wednesday, Burnham expressed concern over whether construction activity should be permitted amid the health crisis and said that, if he was health secretary, he would have closed sites for all but essential work. Burnham held the post of secretary of state for health in the last Labour government.
He said the wording of the Government’s advice, which says that social distancing should be adopted on site “where possible”, was ambiguous.
Responding to a question from Place North West about safe working on site, Burnham said: “If I had made this call, I would have erred on the side of caution and taken a firmer view. In my view, health comes first and, in this instance, protecting lives comes before protecting the economy.
“The weakness in the national guidelines is a major cause for concern and the ambiguity needs to be removed so that everyone can feel safe at work.”
Many construction companies are trying to strike a balance between making enough money to survive and keeping staff safe, but approaches vary across the sector.
Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey has closed all of its operations, while contractors including Bam, Mace and Domis initially closed sites but have since reopened them subject to stricter safety measures.
Willmott Dixon, which has furloughed 800 staff, said it has managed to keep 90% of its sites operational.
A director at another large, Manchester-based construction firm, who asked not to be named, said the company had closed all sites except those where the NHS is the client. He said: “There is a moral angle in terms of protecting staff and the supply chain, but the problem is that Government guidelines put businesses at risk of damages for late delivery. We have called for this to be relaxed, but it is worrying.”
He added: “Pre-construction can operate with everyone working remotely but it’s when you get to site when you have big squads of guys face to face, working together that is the problem.”
He also confirmed that the company was working with clients over the possibility of reopening sites to deliver certain parts of projects and that it had furloughed 800 staff and many others who remained at work had taken pay cuts.
A study by consultancy Savills found that construction had stopped on residential schemes across the country totalling 200,000 homes, which amounted to 80% of net additional housing supply.
Burnham appealed for companies to furlough staff with concerns about their own health, saying it was “fair and reasonable” and that nobody should be forced to choose between their job and their health.
Giving an update on Greater Manchester’s practical response to Covid-19, Burnham said Nightingale North West, which is being constructed at Manchester Central Convention Centre, would open this weekend – earlier than initially promised – and praised the “incredible effort” of contractors Vinci, Sir Robert McAlpine and BDP in getting the work done.
Burnham also announced that, from Saturday, travel on Metrolink would be free to key workers travelling to and from work as a gesture of goodwill, and discussions with bus companies over a similar initiative were ongoing.
He added that a Covid-19 testing facility was operating at Manchester Airport and he would like to see aditional regional testing centres to ease the burden of travel for some who cannot easily get to the airport.