The critical importance of construction throughout the coronavirus crisis and beyond
Priscilla Hall, Head of Clarke Willmott’s London office who leads the firm’s national Construction and Energy & Natural Resources teams, shares her thoughts on the government’s decision to allow the construction sector to continue working through the coronavirus emergency.
The sector is exceptionally valuable to the UK economy and over the last decade has seen significant growth. In 2019 there were over 2.7 million people employed in the sector accounting for 7% of the UK workforce. In terms of gross value added (GVA), construction is worth £111 billion to the UK economy.
Whether it is a loft conversion; building new housing and commercial developments; specialist trades associated with construction; existing building modifications; new roads and civil engineering work; or critical national infrastructure projects such as new hospitals and low carbon energy projects, the scope of the sector is wide and varied.
I have seen how quickly the sector has mobilised to modify the ExCeL exhibition and conference centre to become the new and hopefully temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital, which will have the ability to care for and treat up to 4000 COVID-19 patients. Working alongside the armed forces, this is what the sector delivers on a regular basis: large scale projects within tight timelines. I understand that if necessary, options in Birmingham, Manchester and other locations are being considered.
One of the major challenges in construction, particularly when the current advice is to work at least two meters apart, is that some of the activities require working in close proximity to fellow workers. The sector is rising to the challenge of adapting to the new working environment, not only from a physical perspective but also considering workers’ mental health. We have seen some developments temporarily stop and others continue at reduced capacity. If we look at Hinkley Point C, the workforce has been reduced by over half to around 2000 workers on site, to maintain progress on critical areas whilst safeguarding employee welfare.
There is always a fine balance about maintaining economic activity particularly when many of these construction projects are for long term benefit, whether environmental, health or social. We should trust the scientific advice and allow critical economic activity to continue providing that workers are as safe as possible and that they do not feel pressurised to work. Additionally, we need to believe there will be a coronavirus vaccine and to be positive for the future. A thriving construction sector often equates to a vibrant forward-thinking economy and I look forward to projects large and small continuing at pace in the future.