Eleanor Deeley, Deputy Managing Director of the Deeley Group, on how construction is adapting to a limited return to site working
There is no doubt that parts of the economy are beginning to show signs of life – but the tap is only being turned on very slowly.
I was on one of many recent video calls when someone said that as we end lockdown it will be a little like when you have had your boiler repaired. When you turn on tap it splutters as the pipes refill and takes a while for the flow to be resumed.
On the construction side of the Deeley Group, the announcement of lockdown and social distancing meant our tap was tightly turned off and we closed our 11 sites.
I fully appreciate that it is very difficult for Government to be clear and concise bearing in mind the myriad of unprecented measures they are bringing in at the moment but there was, at best, uncertainty as to what was essential working.
Also, the advice that work would continue also came with a heavy hint that there was little understanding as to how a site works and that did cause concern in the industry.
Slowly the sector got to grips with exactly how we could continue working to a level while strictly adhering to the social distancing rules. That has, inevitably, meant big changes in how we work.
For example, signing in is now by text rather than an electronic fingerprint system; canteens are closed; site times, break times and lunch times are staggered; we can only have 10-30 per cent of the number of people on site to allow for social distancing.
There have been struggles getting materials – especially plasterboard – and many of the builders’ merchants were closed until very recently. That is all easing and the supply of UK-produced goods is getting much better, but there will be times when we are held up by the absence of products such as lifts or air-conditioning units, which have to be imported.
Interestingly, in a world of sub-contractors, there has been a total regard for the health and wellbeing of staff, which has been refreshing to witness particularly when, at the same time, there were images from major construction projects where workers paying no attention to the guidance.
Sub-contractors are only coming back to sites where they are confident that social distancing can be maintained and, when it can’t, there is suitable PPE used by all.
But no-one should be under the impression that this means we are back to normal. Social distancing is likely to remain in place for many months to come and this means that the rate of construction is going to remain low because of the limited numbers on site.
As ever, industry is going to have to find a way to overcome the hurdle. We might need
to extend working hours as we have the longer evenings arriving, almost operating a two-shift system to maximise the number of working hours on site.
I think an increase in weekend working is almost inevitable, but that will not only allow us to maintain progress as much as possible but it will also allow sub-contractors to earn, which will very welcome after the last two months.
Equally inevitable will be increased costs because efficient sequencing of a build will not be possible given the restrictions in place and the equipment shortages.
There are also other more trivial, but still important, consequences. Spirit on a site is always important but with people working alone we simply cannot interact in the same way.
There is going to be part of our morale that is absent as we miss the joke that we don’t hear, and the catch up over a coffee during a break.
But that is a small price to pay.