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Viewpoint: Saving the UK Construction Industry—the Signs of Recovery

The UK construction industry shows signs of recovery, but pandemic challenges abound, including managing on-site facilities.

BREXIT AND A GLOBAL PANDEMIC—it’s not been an easy time for UK industries in recent times, including the country’s construction sector.  But are things finally beginning to look more positive?

There have been some positive signs since the initial peak of the coronavirus in summer. For example, the second national lockdown in England allowed for the construction sector to continue working. The economic growth of 15.5 percent between July and September was the biggest on record, after a flash recession. So, are things looking brighter for one of the country’s biggest industries?

Are we recovering?

From an economic perspective, there were early signs of recovery back in June. The HIS Markit/CIPS Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) rating reported a jump of 11.4 index points. At this point, the index which tracks global economic trends in the manufacturing and services industry was at a five-month high. This correlated with the initial lockdown easing.

But with the global index covering much more than just the UK, it’s important to dig a little deeper to see what the current state-of-play looks like for the country’s construction industry.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that construction output suffered a 40 percent collapse in April this year, with the pandemic behind a 41.2 percent decrease in new work and a 38.1 percent decrease in repair and maintenance. Not only do the dramatic falls represent a financial hole of £5.1 billion, but they also account for the most significant drops since records began 10 years ago. May’s figures show a small sign of improvement for construction output, with an 8.2 percent increase—compared to April’s figure—being accredited to the easing of lockdown restrictions.

However, the ONS has now reported growth in construction output, resulting in the fifth consecutive month of growth. In September, construction continued to grow by 2.9 percent in comparison to the previous month. While this still falls 7.3 percent below February’s output figures, the continual recovery should bring optimism for the sector.

However, even the ONS admits that it’s difficult to quantify the exact impact of the coronavirus alone, with the unpredictability of a virus that has already instigated a second wave with further working restrictions. The construction sector has only just avoided a return to the working restrictions seen in the first lockdown in England.

The need for safety

Whilst construction output and economic recovery will take time to reach levels seen before the virus hit. The construction sector narrowly avoided the restrictions of the second lockdown in England, allowing workers to continue with a greater emphasis on the new guidelines for health and safety in the working environment.

Not only must workers be able to carry out work under standard health and safety regulations, but there’s the added caveat of following social distancing and hygiene measures—putting an even greater focus on health and safety in the construction industry.

On one hand, you have the introduction of the Building Safety Bill, which takes forward reforms of the building and fire safety system—for how a building is built and how safe it is once the structure is complete. On the other, the Construction Leadership Council’s Site Operating Procedures during COVID-19 are aimed at protecting workforces from the virus.

The former is a notable introduction since the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the latter will develop over time, as the guidelines have already had five iterations, with plenty more issues to be produced if the pandemic continues to change at a speed that feels like it’s overnight.

Both are positive steps for improving conditions within the industry and pivotal if the world of construction is to move forward positively.

 

 

The courses are intended to raise Covid-19 awareness and provide employees with the knowledge required to minimise the risk of transmission and infection within the workplace, as well as providing an induction for new employees and informing on up to date guidance.

 

 

Although not directly connected, the two pieces of legislation do work in tandem. Without the Safety Bill, you run the risk of unsafe buildings built in an unsafe way, and without the guidelines for working during COVID-19, you can’t implement the new ways in which buildings have to be built, all the way from design to completion. And among all of this is the workers and their working environment. Life on a construction site can be challenging. It’s less collaborative working spaces and more using the land on which the building is being built on.

Safe On-Site Facilities

There’s a huge range of on-site facilities needed during projects–often housed within storage containers—including offices, canteens, drying rooms, toilet blocks, and storage facilities in a variety of sizes and layouts.

The close proximities of workers make social distancing a tough measure to get right, with the threat of site closure if guidelines are not implemented correctly.

But the good news is that a course for safe working during the pandemic has been launched by industry specialists. CovCert is an online programme designed to provide employees with an understanding of how to work safely and minimise the risks from COVID-19.

On-site facilities are in high demand on construction sites in non-pandemic times, but during 2020 and Covid, they pose a threat to site closures if strict safety guidelines are not followed. (Image: Mobile Mini / All rights reserved.)

The initiative is a collaboration between industry expert Green Hat Consulting and construction workforce specialist Sphere Solutions—and will serve to educate and ensure that construction sites continue to be safe and compliant.

Speaking about the course, Andrew Warring, managing director of Green Hat Consulting, said: “CovCert is aimed at employees who are returning to work on construction sites. The courses are intended to raise Covid-19 awareness and provide employees with the knowledge required to minimise the risk of transmission and infection within the workplace, as well as providing an induction for new employees and informing on up to date guidance.”

It’s another positive step in the right direction and will help those who’ve been unsure of going back to work to be more confident on the construction site, which will no doubt benefit the company they work for and the project they’re helping complete.

Overall, there are slight indications that the industry is starting to see a positive upturn in its fortunes, although there’s still a lot of work to be done and the unknown of what the actual impacts of Brexit will be. Optimism continues to grow, in light of new vaccine effectiveness, for the pandemic to end. But in the construction sector, small steps must be made as frequently as possible to avoid another decade in the doldrums.

About the Author

Thomas Brady is a copywriter for Mobile Mini, with over seven years’ communications and copyrighting experience. He has extensive experience within the energy, construction, financial, auto industry, and services sector.


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