Builders back to work — under new coronavirus rules

Katy Jordan is among the first wave of bosses preparing to get staff back to work, but she does not feel like celebrating.

Storey Homes, where Jordan is managing director, has two sites in Bedfordshire, employing 20 staff and about 50 subcontractors. Both will reopen next week, following the lead of giant developers such as Persimmon, Redrow and Taylor Wimpey.

Katy Jordan is among the first wave of bosses preparing to get staff back to work, but she does not feel like celebrating.

Storey Homes, where Jordan is managing director, has two sites in Bedfordshire, employing 20 staff and about 50 subcontractors. Both will reopen next week, following the lead of giant developers such as Persimmon, Redrow and Taylor Wimpey.

However, Jordan knows it will be anything but business as usual. Social distancing rules will restrict the number of workers allowed on site; individual plots will have to be left for 72 hours after being worked on — or subjected to a deep clean at the end of the day; and welfare supervisors will be present to ensure safety measures are adhered to.

“The economies of scale that all developers look for in construction are just not going to be there,” said Jordan, 48. “I have a professional and a moral obligation to put safety at the top of our agenda.” This will be a common theme for businesses taking tentative steps to reopen in the next few weeks. Many will be in a drastically altered state from their pre-coronavirus days.

Safety measures will mean that building sites and factories can function only at a fraction of their usual capacity, while corporate offices will be run by a skeleton staff. In London, restrictions on public transport could render the City a ghost town for months. Hotels, pubs and restaurants are still a long way from welcoming customers again.

Finding a way back to work in some form is essential if the economy is to avoid its deepest shock for centuries.

If the pandemic is contained and a level of business activity resumes by September, the economy would contract by 5% this year before rebounding by 7.5% next year, according to Yael Selfin, KPMG’s chief economist. However, if there are rises in the infection rate and activity does not resume until next summer, GDP would drop by 8% this year and halve in 2021.

Yet any boss faces a potential backlash as they formulate plans to reopen, accused of choosing the health of their business over that of their workforce.

“I’ve had a huge amount of very nasty feedback from the public and colleagues, saying I’m killing people,” said one chief executive. “Apparently, this is to be expected in the first two weeks — you’ve just got to ride it out.”

The bosses’ cause would be aided if the government provided guidance on how Britain is to start working again. Alok Sharma, the business secretary, is expected soon to outline plans for individual industries to resume in response to demands for clarity from lobby groups.

Some businesses have jumped the gun. Data from Capital Economics reveals that gauges such as footfall in city centres, transport usage and electricity consumption have ticked up slightly in the past week, indicating nascent signs of economic activity.

“A recovery is going to be very gradual,” said Neil Shearing, Capital’s chief economist. “Demand will remain weak and consumer behaviours will be fundamentally altered for the next few years.”

Among the first movers will be construction and manufacturing. Berkeley Homes has kept running at about 20% of normal levels and aims to get back to 80% soon. Other leading builders are beginning to reopen sites.

“We don’t see this as a trade-off against safety,” said John Tutte, Redrow’s executive chairman. “It’s a phased return. If anything comes up that we need to fine-tune, we can do that.”

Construction workers turning up for their first day after lockdown may be in for a shock. Most big sites will have dedicated Covid-19 supervisors asking questions on health and checking that subcontractors know the rules. Some bosses expect whistleblowing to rise — by workers and the public.

Adhering to social distancing rules will mean that efficiency and output are likely to suffer. For example, scaffolding walkways are typically 1.2 metres wide, making it impossible for scaffolders to remain 2 metres apart and so reducing the number able to work at any one time.

Long road to recovery

The boss

Andy Hill, 61, founded the construction business Hill in 1999 and has turned it into one of Britain’s biggest privately owned housebuilders. It builds about 2,000 homes a year and made a pre-tax profit last year of £42.6m on sales of £582.7m. The family-owned company has 69 sites, 47 of which are open — albeit at reduced capacity. All projects have dedicated Covid-19 officers.
“We had a far shorter lockdown period than some, but there will be a long recovery until we get back to full production,” Hill said. “We can’t compromise the safety of our people.”

The project manager

Chris O’Dowd, 39, is project manager at Hill’s 400-home Rectory Park scheme in Ealing, west London. The site reopened two weeks ago and O’Dowd is prioritising 44 houses to be lived in by key workers, including NHS staff at two nearby hospitals. “When we reopened, we had to pause and take stock and re-evaluate what good looks like,” O’Dowd said. There have been restrictions on the use of facilities such as the canteen, toilets and car park. All staff and subcontractors are given extensive training before they come to the site. “I wouldn’t say it’s quite hospital clean, but our welfare is at the peak it can be,” O’Dowd said.

The subcontractor

Matt Ross, 42, owns Southgrove Painting Contractors in Watford and works on the Rectory Park site. Before returning to work, he received emails from Hill with updated safety measures and was directed to a training video on YouTube.
“I knew when I got the call to return I was going to be comfortable with the environment,” Ross said. “Every box had been ticked. There might have been some nervousness, but the atmosphere is professional and it’s been very methodical. Everyone was re-inducted and we’re free to challenge anybody on their behaviour.”

 

The article appeared in the Sunday Times on 3rd May 2020

For press information, please contact Vicki O'Hare at Oracle Group.Tel: 020 8394 2821 or Email:  vicki@oraclepr.co.uk
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