How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the construction industry? By Caroline Gumble

We are living through extraordinary times. Since March 2020, the UK has been under lockdown; office workers have been told to work from home wherever possible, and all but essential shops closed until just a few days ago [at time of writing]. For much of the construction industry, however, suspension is simply not an option. The scope of work undertaken by the industry means that many projects cannot simply stop, while many others already had the necessary procedures in place to continue working safely. Indeed, the construction industry was in a better state to cope with the pandemic than most, thanks to its existing safety standards and practices and, in some instances, has been able to contribute its protective personal equipment (PPE) to the wider community in the fight against Covid-19. It has enabled its workers to continue working in safe ways – many of which were already present – and, where this was not possible, to go out into their communities and continue working hard. Construction provides crucial facilities both during and beyond pandemics, from hospitals to social housing. Throughout the pandemic, the industry has shown an impressive degree of resilience and confidence that it can lead the bounce-back of the economy when the time comes.

Covid-19 is certainly having an impact on the global construction industry. Build UK estimated that as many as 30 per cent of all construction workers were furloughed in April, with more than one in five (22 per cent) still off work in May1. The latest Construction Purchasing Managers Index rose from 8.2 in April to 28.9 in May – but any score below 50 represents a contraction in activity2. Projects are being delayed due to planning and inspection timetables and delays in the supply chain plus new measures are having to be adopted in to ensure the health and safety of the workforce However, the industry continues to defy expectations. Despite those daunting PMI numbers, high confidence in construction by its workers has remained consistent. This confidence covers areas from their ability to continue to work safely and at a distance to belief that there will be a steady stream of work in the near future. Construction has repeatedly topped charts from LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index during the pandemic. However, this confidence could still be fragile. Reduced economic activity usually results in less demand for new commercial or industrial projects, which will have a knock-on effect on the construction industry. Travel restrictions will also impact the ability for both workers and product to move around, potentially causing issues in supply.

To ensure construction leads a sustainable recovery, there are a number of measures that need to be taken to ensure that workers can work safely and efficiently. The CIOB has called for major construction sites to be integrated into the Government’s ‘Test & Trace’ scheme with testing stations. The CIOB’s proposal – included in a submission to a consultation on Covid-19 recovery by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee – would enable the regular testing of workers without risking further transmission of the virus. Construction workers were among the first – alongside key workers – to gain access to at-home coronavirus tests. With over 86 per cent of construction sites in England and Wales open, there is a significant opportunity to locate Covid-19 testing stations on – or in close proximity to – some of the UK’s major construction sites.

Proud achievements
There is no doubt that the construction industry, like all industries, will have to adapt to new ways of working. A recent CIOB survey which looked at the financial, operational and personal impacts of Covid-19 on the global industry found that sites have been able to efficiently enact new measures to adhere to coronavirus distancing guidance, such as being able to distance during travel to work, extended washing facilities on site and enhanced cleaning of all site facilities.

Beyond the work being done on site, construction workers have been using the pandemic to do good in their communities. The survey found that 44 per cent have volunteered to help people in their community, such as shopping for the elderly, 42 per cent have volunteered to support essential workers, and 36 per cent have donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line health and social care workers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the CIOB urged the orgindustry to donate what PPE had become available during the pausing of projects to the NHS in the UK and healthcare providers in communities around the world. The industry has even redirected its skills, helping to build vital stations such as the Nightingale Hospitals across the UK in record time and to a high standard.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a test of all industries, and the construction industry is proud of what has been achieved to date. Organisations across the sector have worked consistently with policy makers to enable the industry to work safely, and government understanding of the importance of the construction industry is evident through the fact that construction workers were designated key workers, receiving urgent testing before availability to the general public. But the hard work continues. The construction sector is a vital part of all economies – making up 13 per cent of global GDP – and estimates suggest the economy could return anywhere between 2021 and 2023. While confidence remains high among construction workers for their future, we must work hard to make sure these key workers can move forward safely and securely to allow society to get back to a new normal.

1 https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/contractors/wates/furloughed-workforce-drops-to-less-than-a-quarter-22-05-2020/
2 https://www.cips.org/supply-management/news/2020/june

Caroline Gumble is CEO of the Chartered Institute of Building. The Chartered Institute of Building is at the heart of a management and leadership career in the built environment. It is the world’s largest and most influential professional body for construction management and leadership, with a Royal Charter to promote the science and practice of building and construction for the benefit of society since 1834.
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