Sturgeon and Johnson at loggerheads over continuation of construction sites



The construction and housebuilding industry is struggling with mixed messages today regarding whether building sites should close or remain open following the latest restrictions on public movement.

Construction workers gathered at Victoria Street in Edinburgh this morning

A number of construction companies have announced the closure sites from today but the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) said greater clarity is required to avoid putting builders’ livelihoods at risk.

Last night Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a nationwide lockdown, mandating the closure of all non-essential shops and banning public gatherings of more than two people not in the same family. The announcement was mirrored by equivalent announcements in Scotland and Wales.

While it does not specify guidance to construction, the government statement on these measures is that one of four reasons to leave home is “Travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home”. It also states there should be no gatherings of more than 2 people except for families of where “the gathering is essential for work purposes – but workers should be trying to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace.”

Additional guidance issued to businesses also makes no reference to construction.

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had already advised building sites in Scotland to close amidst the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Life should not feel normal right now, so if it is, you are not doing the right things and I want to ask you to put that right. There are still too many people across our country who have been expected to, or are expecting, to go to work as normal and that presents a serious and unnecessary risk of spreading the virus. You should close for the period of the efforts to combat this virus.

“This morning I was specifically asked on radio about building sites and hair salons and my advice would be to close.”

She added: “The UK Government has put in measures to pay wages even when workers are not at work and we are pushing for and are very hopeful of seeing soon further measures to help freelancers, the self-employed and contract workers.

“If our National Health Service becomes overwhelmed people will die needlessly. This is about saving lives.”

To further confuse matters, Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, tweeted shortly after the Prime Minister’s television address: “Advice for the housing, construction & building maintenance industries: If you can work from home, do so. If you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.”

And asked by the BBC if the definition of key workers was too wide and too many people are included in it, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “I’ve expressed my concerns to the prime minister directly…. In my view, the only construction workers that should be working are those that we need for safety. I think that this is a time to understand the scale of the challenge we are facing.”

Vaughan Hart, managing director of the Scottish Building Federation (SBF), told our sister publication Scottish Construction Now: “The priority for all businesses working in the construction sector is always the safety and security of those working on sites but the conflicting information from the UK and Scottish Government’s is unhelpful and we would urge them to clarify this as a matter of urgency so the industry can respond in a uniform manner.

“SBF is working collaboratively with other key federations and associations to respond to the incredible volume of calls we have taken from our members this morning but without absolute clarity on the situation from government, we risk a situation developing of different companies reacting in different ways which could be very harmful.

“There will be a need for some staff in some circumstances to be on site to ensure they are kept safe but we need to know exactly what is expected of us in other instances so we can play our part in reducing the impact of COVID-19 on our team and wider Scottish society.”

Innes Smith, chief executive officer from Springfield Properties, said: “Following the Scottish Government’s advice, Springfield Properties will be closing all sites, sales offices, our kit factory and offices from today, Tuesday, March 24, in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Site managers will carry out all essential final inspections to ensure our sites are safe and secure. 

“The safety of our communities, customers, staff and sub-contractors is our primary concern.  We will do all that we can collectively to contain this outbreak and save lives. We would like to thank everyone for their support and co-operation.”

FMB chief executive Brian Berry said: “Our members want to do the right thing, but the advice coming from Government is anything but clear. I am calling on the Government to tell my members, today, whether they can continue to go on-site and work. Small builders cannot work from home, but without cash grants available now, they risk seeing their livelihoods lost.

“Mixed messages are spreading further anxiety at a time when hundreds of small builders face immediate lost earning, having to make their staff redundant, and seeing their companies go to the wall. The £25,000 grant must be extended to construction, support is needed for the self-employed which make up 37% of the industry, and applications for the Job Retention Scheme must be brought forward.”

Ryan Clark, founder of Safer Scotland, added: “Almost all of our construction clients have confirmed that their sites are closing today. We expect the rest to quickly follow. We are moving to 24 hour monitoring of their sites.”

Article update (March 24 at 14:20)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs this afternoon that construction workers must cease building projects unless they are essential, such as building a hospital.

But she added that if measures can be put in place which will ensure safe working on construction sites, then that may change in the future.

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Tags: COVID-19



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