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Life after lockdown: How the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way Britain builds

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November crane: When will UK construction get back to normal?
November crane: When will UK construction get back to normal?   -   Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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For a couple of weeks last month in the UK, Thistle MultiFinish building plaster, which usually retails at just over £5, was being sold on the black market for between £35 and £40.

“I started getting calls from people I haven’t heard from in years asking if I had any,” Dan Hall, a builder from Surrey — a county south-west of London — told Euronews. “There is none left, it’s all gone, it’s all been used up.”

The construction industry makes up around 10% of the British economy and was one of the last sections of the UK economy to shut down, with pictures of packed construction site canteens causing controversy days after the lockdown was announced on March 27.

In the end, said Hall, who owns his own firm, HSL Building Services, but has worked extensively on sites as well as private projects, it was the supply chain that forced UK builders to stop working, rather than any advice from the government.

Two months on, the problem remains. Even the building merchants that have reopened rely on stocks from factories, many of which are closed. Those stores that do have stock are often reluctant to deliver for fear that their staff will get sick.

“I’m doing a job at the moment and it took me a full eight hour day to get all the bits ready and supplied to the job. It would normally take me 15 minutes,” said Hall.

“It’s well and good that we can work if we’re safe, but if we can’t get stuff we can’t work.”

An industry on hold

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown is being felt at both ends of the construction pipeline. From sole traders working on home renovations to mega-projects employing thousands of labourers, subcontractors and craftsmen.

Roni Savage, the founder of Jonas Associates and a civil engineer, says that the industry has seen a major bottleneck due to the fact that developers are unable to sell their current housing stock, with research suggesting that £82 billion worth of property transactions in the UK are on hold.

This week, the UK government announced that estate agents would be exempted from the lockdown and could return to work. But while that is a welcome development for the housing market, it will take time for the buying and selling pipeline to start flowing again.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Construction workers observe social distancing as they work at the "Goodluck Hope" development which is under construction by the Ballymore GroupCopyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reservedMatt Dunham

“You’ve had a period of seven or eight weeks when nobody has sold any of their stock. So people have thought: We’ll build out what we have but we will stop putting any sites in, we’ll stop buying new sites, we’ll stop going through planning, and that is the issue now,” Savage said.

Another issue is how to enforce guidelines on construction sites so that when work does begin again, workers are safe. One of the hardest measures to enforce at both ends of the market is a two-metre distance between workers, particularly on a busy construction site.

One method of dealing with the requirement has been staggering trades so that fewer workers are on-site at the same time, says Hall. The different trades: plumbers, plasterers, carpenters, have different hours and sites open earlier and close later to enable them not to overlap.

But in other areas, construction is actually better equipped to deal with the coronavirus compliance than other industries. Personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, has been a legal requirement and a fact of life on sites in the UK for some years.

“The attitude of wearing PPE is already part and parcel of the culture,” said Hall. “We already wear helmets, gloves, goggles, masks, coverings on your arms, safety boots, shin pads - so just to put a visor across your face isn’t going to make an awful lot of difference.”

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One of the biggest challenges, however, will be hygiene, because while construction sites are far safer than they were 20 years ago, they are not an awful lot cleaner.

“It’s dirty, smelly, sweaty work - you don’t bother washing yourself down until you get home and have a shower. So there might be a cultural change,” Hall said.

In those areas where it is impossible to enforce measures such as social distancing, testing will be key to ensuring that the construction industry can get moving again without either a natural end to the pandemic or a widely-available vaccine, says Savage.

There are sections of the industry - such as scaffolding or operating heavy machinery - where it is impossible not to have two workers in close proximity. In these cases, only cheap, easy and widely-available tests for COVID-19 will allow work to continue, she said.

“I think being able to come up with a system that would enable you to test on the go would be a solution. It would give us confidence: You don’t have it, so social distancing doesn’t really come into play,” she said.

Despite the uncertainty, Savage is confident that the industry will recover.

“We need to continue to stay positive and we need to continue to push the government for incentives to keep the industry going and thriving. We’re not going to crash and burn, we will recover, but how long that will take I don’t know,” she said.