While the UK Coronavirus lockdown and social-distancing requirements have decimated several industries, mixed messaging from government has resulted in confusion for the construction and fire-safety sectors.
With uncertainty about which construction sites can remain open, UK construction-industry activity in March 2020 was reported to have fallen to its lowest level since April 2009. The IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Total Activity Index dropped from 52.6 in February to 39.3 in March, with indications suggesting that this fall could be just the start of yet further steep decline.
While the Scottish Government has deemed the construction sector and its supply chain a non-essential business sector, except where supporting one of 13 defined Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) sectors, the governments in England and Wales continue to recommend that construction should continue, so long as the work can be conducted in accordance with social-distancing guidelines. Trade associations in the construction arena are reporting that this is difficult, if not impossible, and as a result many sites are now shut or working at severely reduced levels.
On 31 March, government Business Minister Alok Sharma identified construction as an example of work that should continue during the coronavirus lockdown. In a letter of thanks1 to the construction industry, Mr Sharma thanked it for supporting the economy, and delivering for the nation at this difficult time. Then in a letter to stakeholders, Neil O’Connor CBE, Director, Building Safety Programme at MHCLG highlighted work on the remediation of high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, particularly those with unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, as critical to public safety declaring that it should continue.
Public Health England has issued guidance on social distancing in the workplace during coronavirus (COVID-19)2, which includes specific guidance for a number of sectors including: Construction3 and Manufacturing and processing businesses4.
Recognising that some construction activities could not be undertaken while obeying the social-distancing rules, the guidance stated states: ‘Where it is not possible to follow the social distancing guidelines in full in relation to a particular activity, you should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the site to continue to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission.’ However, this is not clear or definitive guidance and places all the responsibility on the contractor and their workers.
The Construction Leadership Council released version 3 of its Site Operating Procedures5 which reflects the above guidance and provides further specific methodologies to help with certain construction activities and guidance on travelling to work.
So, where does this leave the humble construction and fire-safety contractor?
In the early days of the lockdown with no definitive guidance from government on what was deemed essential, many contractors were forced to withdraw their operatives from sites and cease operations as their assessment was that many activities could not comply with government and Public Health England (PHE) guidance on social distancing.
There now appears to be consensus across the UK that construction, or at least construction activity in certain key sectors, should be seen as an essential industry. Perhaps with time, some of the initial access, welfare and travel problems may be solved. But currently much of the guidance on what is critical and what is not remains vague and ultimately places the responsibility on employers to decide what is and is not an acceptable activity or risk for their workers.
For example, while remediation of unsafe cladding had been highlighted as critical to public safety, the installation of essential passive and active fire-protection systems were not mentioned as such. Presumably, compartmentation remains just as vital in hospitals, schools and high-rise buildings in coronavirus times as it was before the pandemic hit?
This lack of clarity cannot continue. In the early days of the lockdown construction workers were vilified for travelling on the London Underground network and workers travelling in cars and vans to site were stopped and questioned by police. Furthermore there remains a seemingly common view from an antagonistic general public that construction operatives are not ‘key workers’, with many reporting abuse.
The sector is crying out for more definitive and consistent guidance from government. While expressing its support for the sector and encouraging the industry to focus on getting back to work, government must offer much greater clarity.
If the government needs construction to continue, it must declare those involved in such activity as ‘key workers’ and define a range of critical activities. The government must also provide clear advice for employers to ensure that they can get back to work in the knowledge that their workers are as safe as possible; and their activities and any risks to their workers’ health are validated as essential to the nation by government.
Fire-safety reform announced
Within the above backdrop of the coronavirus chaos, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) released its plans to reform building safety and undertake a major review of the building regulations. The plans, described in a statement6 from Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP as the ‘biggest changes to building safety in a generation’ were laid out in the government response, ‘A reformed building safety regulatory system: government response to the Building a Safer Future consultation’7 and an accompanying Economic assessment of the benefits and costs to the government response to the ‘Building a Safer Future’ consultation8.
The plans include a full technical review of the Building Regulations, as well the establishment of new regulators for Building Safety and for Construction Products, and a new Construction Products Standards Committee.
The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP), along with many other stakeholders, has been calling for a full review of Building Regulations for many years. We are pleased the government is now poised to conduct a far-reaching holistic review but stress that changes introduced, both following the review and in the interim, should consider the vital role of both passive and active fire-protection systems, which must work together to provide a complete fire-safety package.
The ASFP also broadly welcomes the government’s proposals for a range of new national regulators and committees to provide oversight and control of the fire-safety regime in England and Wales. We hope the establishment of a new Building Safety Regulator will greatly strengthen the enforcement regime across the entire built environment and welcome the moves to improve oversight of product and third-party certification standards.
For further information, go to www.asfp.org.uk