Recent restrictions on movement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that only key workers should travel to their place of employment, with others being urged to work from home if necessary. Some have even been advised to apply for statutory sick pay in the event of working in an industry that has been affected by the near-lockdown.
However, with many building sites in the UK being classed as vital to the development of the nation, construction firms are arguing that builders, MEP engineers, plumbers, electricians and other people employed on building sites fall into this “key workers” bracket – and this is true in many respects. If vital refurbishments, pipeline constructions, maintenance and safety measures (such as regularly risk assessing scaffolding in public areas) are not undertaken, this could put the general public at risk.
Social distancing in the construction industry
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the construction industry is having to rapidly adapt to changes. While health and safety chiefs are advising workers on how to implement social distancing in the workplace (by keeping two metres apart, for example, or only working in teams of two), the current condition on the London tubes almost negates the reasoning for doing so.
It’s easy to understand the frustration felt on the building sites. On one hand, workers are considered as essential to current ongoing inner-city projects – but on the other, they are being forced into crowded public transport which puts them at risk of contracting coronavirus, particularly as the level of services in the city declines, forcing more and more workers onto increasingly crowded tube trains. Only earlier this week in the house of commons, we heard the shocking and disturbing story of the construction worker, suffering from coronavirus who has been using the tube to get to work as he feels as though he has “no choice”.
As we know, health workers and other key people have no choice but to travel to work, putting their own lives at risk every time they do. Add this fact to the chilling insight provided by University College London intensive care specialist, Prof Hugh Montgomery, when he warned that “London hospitals are expecting a “tsunami” of cases” and it does make you wonder, is the construction industry really doing everything it can to help keep key workers safe?
Part of the frustration comes about since there seems to be no concrete definition of what jobs are deemed “absolutely necessary”. While nobody could argue against frontline NHS staff or food outlets being necessary, some construction workers are unhappy with being expected to commute each day – particularly if they are working on a project which is closed to the public and does not pose an immediate risk. This means that Health and Safety Executives are finding themselves in an unfathomable catch-22 situation where they are needed on site while works are still underway but are being advised to stay home and protect the NHS.
While ministers have confirmed that all major construction work should go ahead (albeit under social distancing guidelines), many workers have taken to social media to vent their frustrations and highlight their concerns, with the hashtag “shut the sites” gaining traction over the past couple of days.
Why protecting construction industry workers is important
Construction is one of the core industries in the UK. Many would argue infrastructure put in place ensures the smooth running of all other business; this is precisely why we need to take care of our construction workers right now, to avoid shortages in the near future as the economy – and building projects – resume as normal.
As increasing numbers of retail and non-essential workers face switching to Universal Credit for months to come, let’s take a theoretical need for increased social housing in the aftermath of this life-changing pandemic as an example.
Who will build the homes and apartments necessary? Who will have the expertise required to deliver such projects on time and on budget? If we don’t do more to protect our workforce in the construction industry now, we may find ourselves at an even greater loss in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps we have to ask the difficult question, how bad do things have to get before conscience come into play?