The end of the beginning

In a tumultuous seven days the UK has seen a three week lockdown imposed, the construction sector flounder in the face of criticism for being irresponsible, and the economy staring at a deep recession in the coming months, Adrian JG Marsh considers events.

At the beginning of this coronavirus crisis the landscape of normality has been transformed into an unimaginable fight for survival as the pandemic has put thousands of successful companies and millions of jobs at risk. And during an unprecedented period a Conservative Chancellor, yes a Conservative Chancellor, has agreed to pump more than £350 billion to provide emergency grants and funding in an attempt to avoid economic armageddon.

Once the government began to accept that the crisis was not going to go away, and it needed to step in, we have seen a flurry of activity to promise help for business. The first wave of support from the Chancellor inadvertently forgot that because 40% of construction workers are self-employed, they were not covered by his initial support package for companies and PAYE employees. But that did not matter because when the Prime Minister put the country into lockdown, his government took the view that construction work could continue.

Then last week construction leaders were found battling the demands of clients, who did not want their sites closed down, against the Court of Public Opinion that thinks construction’s actions have been irresponsible and sites should close down. Police forces are also beginning to stop people and question why they are travelling and in one instant a tradesman is reported to have been fined for only doing what the Prime Minister told him to do.

What construction learnt, yet again, from last week’s events, is that it is not in control of its own destiny. It has to react to the operating environment that it exists in. Responding to the public backlash, housebuilders and tier 1 contractors started to shut down sites. But there are still instances where contractors are having to work because of contractual obligations and sadly, the spectre of subbie bashing has returned to haunt the supply chain.

Clearly there are some clients, developers and contractors putting profits ahead of public health and safety. Soon no sites will be able to continue because supplies of materials will dry up as manufacturers, distributors and merchants close as sales slow.

The beginning of the crisis is nearly over as the new reality dawns. Construction is not just major contractors, let’s remember 86% of construction businesses are SMEs. The detail of the new support schemes will throw up many challenges for them and in the short term, delivering hard cash into peoples’ hands is vital.

The next challenge, in the coming weeks, will be for the supply chain to devise a new way of working that copes with providing support for essential services, carryout emergency repairs and essential maintenance, and consider ways to protect the sectors’ skills and capability so its ready for when the the economy re-opens.

First published in Spector magazine

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