As we now enter our sixth week of lockdown, with new cases of the coronavirus beginning to plateau, this could prove to be a pivotal week for the UK. Here at Keyline Civils Specialist, we have seen some encouraging indications from the construction sector that work sites are starting to re-open and businesses are persevering. It seems that in the UK at least, it could be the construction sector that helps to lead the way towards a return to normality. 
In recent weeks, the sector has seen many major contractors, including Mace and Beard, instigate a soft return to work, adhering to the government guidelines on social distancing, while also responding to the call to get the economy moving. 
In support of this need to return to operations, local authorities have been urged to allow construction sites to stay open for longer. This action would allow workers to work in shifts, minimising the number of tradespeople on site at any one time and reducing the risk of spreading the virus between workers. With safer on-site working practices like these, we could see a return to more efficient and productive working practices for more sites countrywide.
Thankfully, the construction sector does have the support of the government who have provided encouragement to workers and support for the Site Operating Procedures (SOP) document that was recently issued by the Construction Leadership Council.
We recently asked contractors and business owners whether their employees felt happy to continue working through the crisis. The response was mixed, with 43% of respondents claiming their workers were willing to continue, while a further 30% were willing but concerned. 
Despites this mixed response, it is not only contractors that are instigating a return to work, many housebuilders are also planning to reopen sites. Persimmon and Vistry Partnerships have started working again and Taylor Wimpey are due to begin a phased return shortly. In addition Redrow has announced a phased return to sites later in May as well as a number of measures to support social distancing protocols, including the development of a training course for employees and induction videos for contractors. It will also be appointing COVID-19 supervisors for each sight as well as enhancing signage and increasing the use of PPE.
Even with non-essential construction still on hold in Scotland, Homes for Scotland, the body that represents housebuilders in the country is working on a plan to kickstart building once more but with safety procedures at the forefront. Its chief executive Nicola Barclay recently commented, “We share a desire to rebuild the economy as quickly as is safely possible and believe that we can, quite literally, build our way out of this.”
This is also the case for many civils contractors working on government authorised projects, for example on the continued construction of a bridge over the M4 in Berkshire, with Highways England commenting that it had continued the work only with strict safeguarding measures in place in order to protect the workforce. Similarly, following the news that HS2 received a ‘Notice to Proceed’, its chief executive Mark Thurston underlined the need for safety as a priority in commenting, “If we can’t comply with the guidelines, we will shut our sites and we will take a zero-tolerance approach with our contractors.”
Furthermore, many merchants and suppliers have also restarted operations, with brick producers such as Ibstock, Michelmersh and Forterra firing up their kilns. Together, these steps by a number of companies indicate that the construction industry, and perhaps the wider UK economy, is starting to re-engage after weeks of lockdown. 
To see if this is the case, we recently conducted another survey looking into how the wider construction industry is facing up to the challenges of the present crisis. The survey was carried out between 20th and the 25th April 2020 and targeted business owners and contractors working in the housing, commercial, infrastructure, industrial, retail and public sectors.
Despite all non-essential construction work currently at a standstill in Scotland, the trends of this latest UK-wide survey were still overwhelmingly positive. These were the key findings: 
  • More than half of respondents, (56%) are still able to work through the current crisis. 
  • In terms of efficiency, 70% stated that they are still working at above 50% efficiency, with half able to work even above 80%. Furthermore, a quarter of respondents stated that they hadn’t experienced any drop-in productivity at all throughout the pandemic. 
  • Encouragingly, 50% also stated that they are confident they are working safely and within the government guidelines at all times. Only a small number of respondents, less than 10%, expressed that they were not confident in working safely.
With regards to the level of confidence owners had in the resilience of their businesses, the outlook was positive:
  • Respondents showed a level of confidence in the future, with 20% reporting that they have enough work for the next month while 50% stated that they had enough in the pipeline to see them through the next three months. A smaller percentage of 17% were confident of six months of work going forwards. Only 11% of respondents had no work in the pipeline to speak of.
  • The final figures of the survey were the most positive in terms of confidence, with over 61% absolutely certain that their businesses will be able to continue after the pandemic. 
  • With these businesses clearly confident that they have work lined up for the next few months, and a further 22% predicting that they will ‘probably’ continue to operate following the pandemic, that gives a positive 83% of businesses that should be around to benefit once the restrictions are lifted.  
  • It is possible, however, that this number may increase even further in the coming weeks as a measure of financial support for the small business sector is due to be introduced. The chancellor has announced a new loan scheme where businesses can apply for new Bounce Back Loans up to a maximum of £50,000 or 25% of turnover, with the government paying the interest for the first 12 months. This could prove vital for those companies who have not found a continued state of work and efficiency possible. 
  •  While many smaller companies are still tentative as to the effectiveness of safety procedures, it is safe to say that the wider construction sector is starting to mobilise and taking steps towards progress. This should instil faith for smaller companies, that with the right safety procedures in place, the sector can take steps to help the UK economy and begin to work once more. 
If you did not take part in this survey but would like to contribute to this week’s questionnaire please click here and take a few minutes to share your own opinion. 


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