With the government starting to communicate its plan to ease restrictions, the upcoming weeks could see a potential return to work for many more in construction. Here at Keyline Civils Specialist, we have been investigating how the ongoing crisis is continuing to affect businesses, both big and small, with our latest survey suggesting that while concerns are varied, a key issue is that many are unsure of what the future may hold.

With the construction Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI), plunging to 39.3 in March from a 16-month high of 52.6 in February, it appears optimism is at its lowest in the sector since April 2009.

We wanted to see if that was the case across the board so we conducted a survey between the 28th April and the 2nd May 2020. In it, we asked business owners and contractors working in the housing, commercial, infrastructure, industrial, retail and public sectors how they have been adapting to allow work to continue despite the challenges. These were the key findings:

  • 58% of respondents said they will keep to the same level of staff furloughed. Of the remainder, only 4% were looking to furlough more staff while a positive 38% were planning to bring staff back from furlough.
  • To continue safe working practices, 51% of respondents have made working hours more flexible in order to aid social distancing, while 30% are able to continue without amending their working hours. 

Working safely is at the top of the agenda across the supply chain, with manufacturers re-configuring their operations, merchants working to new guidelines and construction workers continuing to maintain the two-metre distance, even on site. As the government plans its back to work strategy, it is encouraging to see that more than 50% of those surveyed have changed working hours to aid social distancing.

When it came to the current completion time of projects results were mixed. 29% of respondents are confident in completing projects on time or as intended. 19% anticipate a short delay of 10% on top of what was intended; while a further 52% predict a delay of 20% or more on intended delivery date.

Together, these figures indicate that while a number of UK contractors (excluding Scotland) have returned to work this week, activity is still reduced and delayed in some areas. However, with the return of a number of larger housebuilders and manufacturers to site or production, along with the recommissioning of HS2, this would suggest that on a wider scale there is movement on construction sites as well as demand on the supply chain. 

In light of a number of sites reopening, we asked survey takers whether their level of confidence in the future of their business had changed. An element of uncertainty in how to proceed was reflected, with 62% maintaining their level of confidence in the future of their business and 17% feeling more optimistic than previously. However, in contrast to this, 21% are now less confident in their business going forward.

 Generally, those with concerns fell into four categories:

  • Those that were restricted by the access to materials
  • Those that were affected by maintaining site safety rules
  • Those who had sites that were currently shut down
  • Those with difficulty finding new projects

Some respondents even highlighted that while they wanted to work, they were unable to source PPE equipment as their normal suppliers had to prioritise providing for the NHS.

Having spoken with a number of customers through this most recent survey, it is clear that there are mixed reactions about how to work through the crisis. One contractor commented: “Our working hours stay the same, but with less staff to carry out a job, works take longer.”

Alternatively, one commented: “We have changed our week to 4 days and stagger start times.” A third was concerned about “an upsurge in positive COVID-19, due to the irresponsible non-compliance of others.” 

While many confirmed they are working within the HSE and government guidelines, one telling comment received highlighted the difficulties met when trying to adapt working hours: 

"We informed our Local Council of this intention and were informed they would not allow a change to site working hours, so we are unable to do that.”

Finally, we asked an open-ended question on how respondents were experiencing business through this current crisis. While many talked about uncertainty going forward and others were concerned about the future of the economy, the largest sentiment felt was personal stress and worry.

Aware of the developing concerns around mental wellbeing during this difficult time, Mates in Mind, an organisation established by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council, has developed a briefing tool for companies on how to best address the situation, with a key focus on communication with each other.

Thankfully, one of the latest changes to the current situation is that those in the construction sector are now able to receive COVID-19 testing, which will hopefully relieve a level of concern for many.  All workers and their families are eligible, “from construction workers to emergency plumbers, from research scientists to those in manufacturing”, with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggesting “the expansion of access to testing will protect the most vulnerable and help keep people safe.” The unions have backed the testing as so many in the construction sector have continued to work through the lockdown. As an essential worker you can apply for a test, here.

This week is set to be an important one, with the government due to lay out its plans for the future, including task specific guidelines to be announced for each sector.  With reports of wider walkways being imposed on sites and claims that the virus is harder to catch outdoors, it is hoped that with additional and evolving government guidance, more construction companies will find their concerns alleviated and their business able to continue in far more positive and certain circumstances.

If you did not take part in this survey but would like to share your thoughts, get in contact by emailing us at or keep an eye out for our next survey via Keyline Civils Specialist on both Facebook and LinkedIn. 


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