Open letter to industry from Kwasi Kwarteng acknowledges risks firms face in latest lockdown
New business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has written an open letter to the construction industry telling it it is safe to carry on working and spelling out why sites are continuing to stay open.
His letter comes as concerns about working through this latest lockdown have grown in the week since it was announced by prime minister Boris Johnson.
Construction was again spared the stay-at-home message but several firms contacted by Building have said keeping sites open in the coming weeks might not be as straightforward as previous lockdowns.
Several pointed out that sites are open this time around when cases are higher than the first lockdown in March last year while schools, closed as part of the third lockdown, have drawn up detailed plans for homeschooling.
One small contractor told Building that one of its senior team was forced to take his five-year-old daughter to his site office last week. “His wife works in a hospital. He had to drop something off at the site so his daughter had to come along as well.”
Yesterday, England’s chief medical officer took to the airwaves to warn the next few weeks will be the worst of the pandemic.
Prof Chris Whitty added: “In London for example one in 30 people currently have this coronavirus, across the country as a whole, it’s one in 50. So this is a serious problem.”
The number of people in hospital with covid yesterday stood at 32,294, up 22% on Monday last week.
One developer behind several high-profile schemes across London said: “It’s being managed well so far but it is now more a case of me walking onto a site and asking: ‘How many covid cases have we got at the moment?’ Last spring, you heard about the odd one but it is much more prevalent now. Everyone knows someone who’s got it or has had it. It’s much higher than it was and has percolated onto every major project in London.”
But on his first full day in office Kwarteng, who was previously construction minister for just a month before his promotion last Friday, replacing the outgoing Alok Sharma, said the industry should continue to keep going: “It is vital that construction continues through these unsettling times and I want to reassure you that the government values the crucial contribution your sector is making.”
Kwarteng’s letter is intended to shore up support for keeping construction open and underlines the balancing act government is facing between protecting the NHS and not sending the economy into freefall. Yesterday, in an update on the state of the nation’s finances, chancellor Rishi Sunak warned people should expect the economy “to get worse before it gets better”.
In his letter, Kwarteng told the industry: “Whether delivering on large or small construction sites, and in people’s homes across the country, in builders’ merchants, designing and project managing schemes or producing construction and mineral products, you are making a major contribution to the economic recovery following covid-19.”
Last spring’s lockdown, which saw thousands of sites shut, saw GDP slump by a record 20% in April alone while in the three months to June, output for construction nosedived by 35%.
Kwarteng also said workers getting to and from sites would still be able to do so. “I would like to make it clear that where it is essential to travel or to stay in accommodation, whether to get to your work or for the purposes of carrying out your work, those in the industry are able to do so.”
He made no reference to the problem many in the industry are facing with homeschooling – most construction roles are exempt from key worker status which would allow them to send their children to school – but Kwarteng added: “My ministerial team and I are in regular contact with industry leaders about the risks, issues and challenges you face.”
Last week, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) updated its site operating procedure guidance telling contractors to take action if five or more cases are identified within 14 days, under new Public Health England guidance.
The boss of one tier 1 contractor told Building yesterday: “The frequency of infections has gone up but we’ve got really good protocols in place now. I’m comfortable to keep going.”
A separate CLC update warned the industry to work together to resolve dispute caused by the pandemic. It said the goodwill shown in the early stages of the crisis was breaking down, according to a survey it carried out. It found that while parties were inclined to settle an entitlement to additional time for completion, there was a reluctance to agree financial losses, costs and expenses.