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Will easing the lockdown get construction back to work?

Boris Johnson’s announcement of the easing of some lockdown restrictions has given a boost to a number of business sectors, including construction. In truth though, the PM’s Sunday evening statement to the nation was largely a restatement of the position that already applied to the construction industry – namely that the sector can work as long as social distancing is observed.

So, with many sites and projects still halted and thousands of workers on furlough, is it likely that Johnson’s two announcements (he repeated the content of Sunday’s statement with a largely similar one the day after, following criticism for a lack of clarity) be enough to get the construction industry back to work?

The signs are mixed so far. Although a decent number of contractors and housebuilders had already announced the reopening of sites before the PM made his announcements on easing the lockdown, difficulties remain over how construction workers are going to get to work when the government is still advising against people using public transport.

Driving to work is just not an option for many people whose offices or sites are based in large cities and despite the government’s efforts to encourage cycling, it’s hard to envisage thousands of construction working pedalling to sites across the country. Instead, the government’s ‘advisory’ guidance on wearing face masks on public transport is likely to be taken by many workers who have no choice but to brave the tubes, metros, trains and buses over the next couple of weeks.

The PM’s statements specifically said that he wanted those in the construction and manufacturing industries to return to work this week. Those sections of the industry that can guarantee safe working will now presumably start getting back to work, always assuming of course that there is work to do. There are already rumours that a number of sites in the commercial or housing sector that have been halted may not start up again straight away amidst fears over the residential and retail markets taking a big economic hit as a result of the pandemic decimating business.

A construction industry recovery plan is due to be announced later this week and that clearly cannot come quickly enough for a sector that is itching to get back to work and also extremely concerned about the future shape of the economy and the effect that any downturn might have on firms throughout the industry.

The government’s 60-page document explaining how it plans to ease lockdown restrictions and rebuild the UK is likely to be scrutinised closely by construction industry leaders, who will also be looking for reassurances over when major projects in the public and private sectors are likely to be fully restarted and the industry back at work for good.

It is likely that engineers, surveyors and architects will be working from home for a while longer yet, with manual workers being encouraged to return to sites as soon as it is safe to do so. The hope will be that the public will continue to observe social distancing and that there will be no second peak of coronavirus and then slowly but surely the economy will get back on its feet.

A widespread return to normal working for the construction sector appears to be a long way off yet, especially as the PM’s lockdown-easing advice only applies to England, with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland not changing their guidance currently. It also remains to be seen exactly what any new normal is likely to look like and just when that is likely to be.

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